Asking the Difficult Questions, OR “Does personal fulfillment make me selfish?”

I read my co-fellow Jonathan’s post a few weeks back and thought to myself, “Dang-it! That was what I meant to say!” (Let’s be serious, I most likely did not say ‘dang-it’, but rather some less kosher version thereof. But it was that sentiment). Jon so perfectly conveyed the theory, ethics and emotions behind what we do and why, that I almost felt like there was no more to say, and no eloquent way to say it. How to write a post that compares to that?

I am lucky enough to work with people on-the-ground daily, which is something that I’ve learned is vital for me to feel fulfillment, motivation, and joy. Perhaps most importantly, it is those encounters that leave me recognizing that what we do is not only worthwhile, but vitally important. Let me elaborate…

We have one client, Donald, who I initially interacted with back in August. He is a daytime syringe exchange client; I fondly think of him as our “gentle giant” since he is over six feet tall, but has a soothing and serene voice. One day I noticed that he wasn’t walking with the same stride as usual. He didn’t have a heavy limp, but something was bothering him enough to affect his gait. During the exchange we chatted, and in passing conversation I asked if he had any open sores or wounds. “Actually, I do,” he mentioned, and he told me about a sore on his foot that had been bothering him. I asked if he might be open to going to see a doctor for it. He said, “Yes,” but that he didn’t know where to go. We referred him to a free local clinic run by Georgetown medical students, and gave him all the information with fingers crossed that he would seek the help he needed if necessary.

We saw him again a few weeks later and he was extremely thankful – he had gone to the clinic, they cleaned out his wound, and they gave him an open boot so it didn’t continue to get irritated. “Thank you!” he said. “It feels a lot better.”

We didn’t see Donald for weeks and weeks. I wondered what had become of him. I missed our interactions. Then, I saw him for the first time again in November. Again, he thanked us profusely, saying, “It is because of you that I went.” He told us that we had “saved his foot.” He pulled me around the back of the van and confided in me that the doctors had to amputate a small part of his toe (about which he seemed embarrassed). The doctors had told him that had he not come in, they may have had to amputate part or all of his foot. He repeated multiple times the thankfulness and, as an outreach worker, genuinely almost made me cry.

I thought a lot about my personal fulfillment after these encounters. My overarching question was, “Is it selfish for me to want our clients to achieve success if part of the result is that I feel like I helped?”

After contemplation and perhaps a few internal moral dilemmas, I realized that, no, I don’t think it’s selfish. People gain fulfillment from a number of different places – art, travel, money, family, a good ol’ challenge – among many others. As long as we remain focused on supporting our clients, the fact that we derive inspiration, contentment, and joy from successes is not something to feel guilty about.

I still think of Donald often. I look forward to when I see him next with the hope that his foot will be healed, but also with the pride that we were able to provide resources to meet him “where he was at” (harm reduction lingo) and to empower him in his decisions.