Wayne Quinn spent a career nursing the homeless and less fortunate, but now his career has ended as he battles cancer.
The Bible verse is, “Physician, heal thyself,” but you wish it applied to nurses, too.
Then maybe Wayne Quinn could walk out of this chemotherapy treatment room at Swedish Cancer Institute and get back to helping the homeless, whether they’re sick or worried or just need an ear.
That’s what Quinn, 62, is best at. That’s what he knows, and it is a wisdom collected over seven years as a nurse at the King County Jail and 23 years on the streets as a nurse with the Health Care for the Homeless Network.
That ended last week, when Quinn retired for medical reasons of his own. The cancer that he thought was gone for good came back last spring, this time to his lungs. His doctor gave him a year, maybe two.
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Ever the stubborn Irishman, Quinn continued to work for a while, but finally concluded that he couldn’t risk contracting infection out there anymore and that his life’s work was done, as of last Thursday.
“It’s really distracting,” he told me, looking at the bags of medicine hanging nearby. “I don’t want to be preoccupied by all this.
“I’ve always felt that doing what I have done is therapeutic for me because I needed to do that, and those people need me,” Quinn continued. “I’ve always thought of my work as more of a vocation, a way of life. It’s not just wearing a badge. It’s molded into my personality.
“I want to work!”
While so many others in the city have been focused on policy, and as the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness enters its sixth year (and with no end in sight), Quinn has been on the front lines, quietly tending to the faces behind the issue.
There are, unfortunately, more than last year. In its annual One Night Count, conducted last month, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness reported 2,594 men, women and children without shelter in King County, a slight increase over last year’s 2,442.
Quinn doesn’t care about the numbers — only the aches and pains.
His gift was an ability to find just the right amount of space and just the right words to allow the most basic question to be asked: “How you feeling today?”
“You have to coax,” Quinn said. “To form a relationship that is authentic. I can ask you all kinds of questions and you will divulge to me, in a moment.”
Divulge, and surrender. Quinn enjoyed delousing patients, he said, because it was an instant cure, a problem solved.
There were characters, like the self-described “tramp” who jumped from trains and didn’t understand why his knees hurt.
Maybe because you’re 82, Quinn said.
He asked Quinn for “liniment” and, after being given ibuprofen, called it “a miracle.”
Quinn described street nursing as “a sensual experience.” You have to use your eyes to see wounds. Your ears to hear what a person is saying, and the sounds or lack thereof. You need touch to feel if they’re warm. And while you don’t taste anything, the smell makes up for it.
“There were toxic smells, but you know that the person would be all better soon,” Quinn said. “What other work is giving you immediate satisfaction?”
Quinn was raised in the fists-up town of Lynn, Mass., where he lived down the road from the “poor farm,” and was educated by nuns who considered helping the homeless a mission.
He came back from Vietnam and worked as an orderly in the local hospital, where he became known for calming fretful patients. Years later, with a nursing degree, he did the same thing for another group on the fringes — the King County Jail population — before hitting the streets.
“He could have been a supervisor, a doctor,” said his wife, Joanne, with whom Quinn has two daughters and three grandchildren. “But this is the niche that works for him. I can’t see him being anything else.”
And this was the place for it, Quinn said. Seattle is tolerant and has a “unique generosity” that provides medical treatment, addiction services and housing to the homeless that he hopes continues — along with our sensitivity.
“When you lose sensitivity,” he said, “it’s time to get out of the game.”
The cruel truth is that Quinn hasn’t lost his sensitivity. Just his ability to exercise it on the street with those who need him.
“I am like the Irish fighter, Jerry Quarry,” he said. “He’d be all bruised, cuts, and never go down. That’s how I feel.”
But if that day comes, he said, treat him like the good Irishman he is.
“I don’t want sobbing,” Quinn said. “Just whiskey. Prop me up and bid me adieu.”
Adieu, and deep thanks for the care.
Nicole Brodeur’s column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or email@example.com.
He even plays the accordion.