It was a miserably hot August afternoon in 2007.
I parked my car near Mill Avenue in Tempe. Not for classes at A.S.U. this time, but to interview Dr. Randy Christensen, the medical director of Phoenix Children’s Hospital’s Crews’n Healthmobile.
Randy and his team were running late. I sat sweating in the heat with a backpack stuffed with recording equipment and a notepad full of questions, waiting.
No one sits in the heat in August just for kicks. I felt suspect, so out of place, just hanging around outside with nowhere else to go.
Twenty minutes went by. Thirty. I began wondering if Randy and the medical unit would show at all.
Shouldn’t the homeless teens and young adults be gathering around the area to wait for him? They came here at the same time every week. It seemed deserted. Did I have the location wrong? Where were all the patients he was going to be serving?
Then I saw it- the large vehicle, clearly marked with PCH logos, pulled in next to a grassy area near where I waited. As I made my way over there, the kids did, too. Where had they been before? It was as if they had been invisible, emerging out of nowhere only at the health mobile’s arrival.
It was a parade of kids of adolescent age. Yes, some were tattooed and fully pierced. Some were not. Most carried backpacks and looked like they’d been in the sun way too long.
Randy introduced himself, then showed me around the inside of the van (more like a roomy R.V). A medical resident and a couple of nurses who help staff the office were busy handing out water bottles and getting the clinic ready to see patients.
I felt more than a little guilty that I was pulling Randy away from his duties as he showed me around the mobile clinic and then we climbed up in the cab of the unit for the interview.
He told me about why he decided to steer his medical career in this direction. He was passionate about caring for the kids who live, for the most part, on the street. Kids with mental health problems. Kids who have been sexually abused. Kids who have survival sex within just a few days of running away from home, or being kicked out of their homes.
He told me about a girl with a bracelet that said, “Ask me why I hurt.” Her name was Mary. I remember that his eyes teared up a bit as he spoke of her story.
I headed for home that day grateful for air-conditioning, cold water, shampoo and a full pantry. I’d gained a new perspective, too, on those teens you might see now and then, wandering the streets, looking as if they had too much time on their hands and were up to no good. The ones you look away from, as if they’re not there.
Could they be hungry, homeless? I wanted others to think about this –to see these invisible children for who they really were and to care about them, too.
This week, Dr. Randy Christensen will continue to spread the word about his work caring for these kids with the release of his first book, named for the words on Mary’s bracelet. Ask Me Why I Hurt: The Kids Nobody Wants and the Doctor Who Heals Them.
It’s a riveting read, and a powerful reminder that sometimes it just takes a handful of dedicated people to make a huge difference in the lives of another.
Dr. Randy Christensen will be signing copies of Ask Me Why I Hurt on Tuesday, April 12 at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. You can buy a book and tour the Cruis’n Healthmobile- and meet Randy’s team. And, you can find out how to help.