I first picked Veronica up on Hungerford Street one afternoon two years ago. We had been called for an unresponsive, but instead, we found a small woman with a club foot staggering along the street. She was half on the nod and covered with leaves. I asked her if she was okay, as we walked up. She just mumbled, and tried to keep walking. We stood in front of her and at twice her size, it became hard for her to ignore us. We were called, we have to at least see if she was okay, we explained.
“I’m fine,” she said. “I just want to go home.”
“Why are you covered with leaves? I asked.
She wiped tears from her eyes. “The kids robbed me and threw me in the bushes. It happens all the time. They like having their fun with me.”
At least she seemed to have managed to buy and use some heroin before they accosted her. Her pupils were pinpoint and she had a weakness in her knees while standing. Perhaps the kids had been warned by the block enforcer not to rob her until she had contributed her few crumpled dollars to the day’s take.
“You don’t hurt anywhere?”
“No, I just want to go home.”
She was under the influence, but she was breathing fine and knew where she was when prodded. She let my partner do a head to toe survey on her and he found nothing significant.
We couldn’t talk her into going to the hospital, but we did walk her the two blocks home to her apartment building where a neighbor who saw her walking with us agreed to look after her. She told us she had narcan in her apartment.
After that day, whenever I saw Veronica on the street, I would have my partner pull the ambulance to the curb and I’d call out, “Hey, Veronica, how are you?”
She’d come to the ambulance window and we’d chat. I learned some things about her. She was thirty-eight. When she was little she wanted to be a dancer, but her bones were too brittle to stand up to the stress. She had once gone to New York to see Swan Lake on Broadway and she had ice skated at Rockefeller Center. She turned to pain pills and then heroin for her bone pain and for other health reasons, which she did not elaborate. She said she stayed away from white heroin because she was afraid of overdosing on fentanyl, which had already happened to her twice, waking up looking at the paramedics. She snorted and did not inject as she was afraid of needles despite the butterfly tattoo I could see on her neck. She stayed away from Chief, KD and the Fastrack brand. She made certain to keep narcan in her house and tried not to use alone, although she admitted she often did.
Last February we were at the substance abuse rehab hospital, waiting for a nurse to let us into the locked unit to take out a patient with a low 02 sat, when I saw Veronica come out of the entrance elevator and walk up to the admission desk. She was very pale and moved like every bone and muscle in her body was aching.
“Veronica,” I called over to her. “How are you doing?”
She looked about the room trying to locate the familiar voice. She likely wasn’t expecting to be recognized there. When she saw me she forced a smile and nodded.
“Glad to see you,” I said. “This is your time. You can do it.”
She looked down at her feet, her face flushing. I wasn’t certain if she was pleased I’d said hi or if I had embarrassed her.
That was the last I saw of her for many months. And then, just before Christmas, I spotted her walking alone on Park Street early in the morning. We pulled over and I called out her name. She came over, her head barely up to the window. When I asked her where she had been, she told me she had been staying with her sister in Woodbury, but then she had slipped up. Now she was back in Hartford. I told her I was proud of her for the months she’d been clean, and that she shouldn’t be discouraged. Relapse is a part of recovery for many. She did it once, she could do it again. The next time would be the charm.
“Thank you,” she said.
I reached in my pocket and took out a Dunkin Doughnuts gift card. I always keep a few on me to give to homeless people. “Merry Christmas,” I said, than added, “It’s only for $5.”
Her face softened and she gave me a huge smile. She took it with one hand and with other, she reached for my hand, and gave it a squeeze. “Merry Christmas,” she said.
I watched her hobble down the street and wondered what her Christmas would be like, if she would be spending it with family and friends or if she would celebrate it by snorting a bag of heroin alone in her apartment. I wished I had given her a few bucks to go with the card or maybe the orange I had with me.
I try to follow the users I encounter and see how they are progressing with their lives. Some I see regularly on Park Street; others disappear. I don’t know if they die or if they recover and are living productive lives or if they are just using on the streets of another city.
I can’t see the future, but every day people are still alive should be counted as a small victory for them, even if they fail in the end.
I still see Veronica around the neighborhood, and sometimes we talk. I saw her this week on Park Street. It was a bitterly cold morning. She was with three guys wearing hoodies, who I always see in front of the same shuttered store. She was doing a wobbly dance for them, prancing around, turning circles and waving a scarf in the air. She laughed and the dealers laughed too. They seemed to think her dancing was really funny like she was their court jester. They motioned for her to dance more, and she responded, flapping her arms like a butterfly. I had a brief vision of her then just flying away, rising above Park Street, and migrating on to a better place. The vision faded and all I saw was the men laughing as she stumbled.
My partner asked if I wanted him to stop so I could say hi to her, but I said keep driving.