Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 1453, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

For St. Vincent de Paul Society, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ isn’t the question

the Inland Register

(From the July 21, 2016 edition of the Inland Register)

(Editor’s note: All the personal details of Ben, the man profiled here, have been changed – including his name – to protect his identity; however the case as described here is as close to the facts as possible.)

Imagine... Being alone in a foreign country, a refugee chased from your homeland by civil war. Leaving your family in that faraway land, hoping to bring them over someday.

Imagine never really connecting in your new home, separated from your hosts by language and culture, and from your former fellow-countrymen by religion and ethnicity. Never finding suitable work, barely able to pay the bills, just scraping by.

Then imagine a fall that shatters your knee, requiring extensive surgery. Being discharged from the hospital immediately because your state-provided insurance didn’t offer post-operative rehabilitation, walking on that repaired knee because you didn’t understand that you couldn’t. Not that you’d had a choice: you had to get back to work to pay the bills.

Then losing your job because you couldn’t come to work. Soon you’re two months behind in your rent and your landlord just handed you a “three day pay or vacate.” And you don’t have any food or any way to get around.

This is what one of Spokane’s St. Vincent de Paul conferences encountered recently. The conference members on duty were so overwhelmed by the hopelessness of the case that they decided after prayerful consideration that providing some food and helping the man transition to the street was all that could be done.

But then the Vincentians, as members of the Society are known, did a home visit. They found the situation worse than they realized. Because the man, Ben, had walked on his repaired knee far sooner than he should have, the surgery had failed. He now required a complete knee replacement. Worse, the surgery was on hold: the surgeon required a pre-op dental check to ensure Ben was infection-free, and he failed it. As a result, he had been referred to an oral surgeon for further evaluation. But only one oral surgeon in Washington accepts state-provided insurance. And he is in Seattle.

The Vincentians realized the man before them was lost, broken, and hopeless. They had to help him somehow. And almost immediately they realized there were several glimmers of hope.

The man’s landlord, a devout Catholic, wanted to help Ben, not evict him. The landlord was open to working with the Society in any way he could.

One of the Vincentians was a nurse practitioner. She quickly unwound the case’s medical complexities, saw what needed to be done, and set to work with her connections in the medical community.

Another Vincentian was a dental technician, and she likewise got in touch with her contacts.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s presence in Spokane is small. Many other local agencies help more people. But being small, the Society has the flexibility to help select individuals on a scale far greater than bigger organizations. In situations like Ben’s – where the need is too big for individual conferences to handle – the Spokane District Council’s Emergency Assistance Committee (EAC) steps in. The EAC coordinates the efforts and combines the resources of the entire council to address such cases. The EAC realized that without the Society’s help, Ben’s very survival may be at risk, and decided to cover five months’ rent.

The nurse practitioner Vincentian jumped into the role of medical case manager. She analyzed the case, determined what was missing and needed to be done, and helped her fellow Vincentians understand it and devise a plan. Even more, she bridged the gaps between Ben’s various healthcare providers and determined what would be required in the way of post-operative care.

The dental technician on the Vincentian team quickly found a dentist willing to do the necessary exam and treatment free of charge. He declared Ben free of dental infection and qualified for surgery.

The final piece of the puzzle – post-operative care – will be provided by Catholic Charities’ House of Charity, whose Respite program offers a place for those recovering from illness or surgery – people who, like Ben, would otherwise have no place to go (Ben does not qualify for post-op care under either his state insurance or Medicaid).

This case is ongoing. All signs are hopeful, but it is by no means resolved. While it is a testament to what communities of faith working together and powered by grace can accomplish, it’s equally an illustration of the enormous hurdles the poor face every day in our society: limited access to healthcare; enigmatic, uncoordinated bureaucracy; unfathomable complexities; insurmountable Catch-22s.

It also highlights the enormous holes that exist in our social safety net. One shortcoming highlighted by complex cases like Ben’s is the absence of professional general case management in the community. Those not clients of an agency providing its own case management are left to navigate the social service world – to say nothing of the medical establishment – on their own. The result is a multitude who never connect with desperately needed opportunities as well as the waste and inefficiency of untapped community resources.

“Who is my neighbor?” isn’t the question; “how do we help him?” usually is. Often we’re not given the answer until we first try helping.

(For more information about the work of the Vincentians, contact parish St. Vincent de Paul conferences, or email Spokane District Council president Paul Machtolf: Donations can be made directly to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Spokane District Council, P.O. Box 2906, Spokane, WA 99220, or to the individual parish Conferences. Additional information is available on their web site:

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