I SAW HER COMING across the parking lot. She was “lower than a snake's belly” as my Grandma used to say. Her eyes were downcast, her shoulders slouched, and her shoes scuffed on the pavement. I greeted her at the door, welcoming her with a smile and a “How are you today?” I realized she was the same as last week and the week before: depressed.
Ms. L started coming to our nurse-managed clinic 4 months earlier when we initiated counseling services in collaboration with a local university's Department of Counseling and Social Work. Social services had removed Ms. L's three elementary school-age children, one of them a hearing-impaired special needs child, because of drugs and domestic abuse in the household where Ms. L lived with her boyfriend. Ms. L was coming to our clinic to receive counseling.
Whether it was due to our counselors' help or some inner strength, Ms. L eventually kicked her boyfriend out. She told the counselor that her goal was to get her children back. I wasn't privy to this information at the time. Only later did I learn that some lofty goals had been set with the counselor, and I was privileged to watch from the periphery and see Ms. L's transformation.
Each week the same scenario replayed: I'd see Ms. L coming down the hill, and I'd greet her and receive the same greeting in return. But one week she didn't show up. All I could think was, well, that's it; we won't see her again. But the following week she came in for her session. She told us she'd received a call from social services just minutes before last week's appointment, instructing her to report to the drug testing facility for a random drug screen. The facility was in the neighboring town and Ms. L had to walk there because she had no transportation. She told us that this would be the routine for a while as she petitioned to get her children back. If she could prove she was clean, social services would reevaluate her case.
She missed more counseling appointments as she rushed off to take drug tests. She usually called to let us know she couldn't make it, and I could hear the determination in her voice. No matter the weather, Ms. L made her drug test appointments. We saw her one 20-degree afternoon walking up the hill to the housing project where she lived, and we sent a car to pick her up. But the good news was that Ms. L was passing all the tests.
We began to notice a change in Ms. L. Her eyes were still downcast but there was blue eye shadow on those eyelids. She no longer shuffled across the parking lot; she walked as if she were walking on air. We knew she'd made a dramatic breakthrough when she came to the clinic showing off a sassy new haircut.
After several months, Ms. L went to family court petitioning to have her children returned to her care. Taking into account that Ms. L was attending Narcotics Anonymous on her own accord, remaining under the care of a nurse practitioner, and participating in counseling at our clinic, the court ruled that it was safe for the children to be returned to their mother.
I received the news in an e-mail from our nurse at the clinic. To say that I broke out in goose bumps is an understatement. The tears started to flow and I felt a deep sense of affirmation. Just knowing that one person and her children were benefiting from the counseling we did at the clinic made all our hard work worthwhile.
I wanted to give Ms. L a hug and congratulate her, but she didn't come to counseling the next week. I asked our receptionist if she'd seen Ms. L, concerned that our counselor might lose touch with her. Our receptionist replied, “I saw Ms. L yesterday. She was getting her children off the bus. You should have seen the smile on her face.”
We both had smiles on our faces as I looked at the calendar. It was December 20, and we'd just received our Christmas miracle.