No More Shackles
Timothy sat hunched over in a wheelchair at the entrance to the prison hospital. Wrapped in a white blanket, shivering, pale, and emaciated, the long-awaited day had finally arrived. He was going home.
The state prison in Florence sits like an old fortress atop a hill in the middle of the Sonoran desert. Outside the city limits are miles and miles of sand, saguaro, and sun-baked reptiles. Not a hospitable environment for a would-be escapee.
We arrived at the main prison gate. There was a newbie at the control panel opening and closing the gates. The guard yelled for him to open one gate and close another, but his orders went unheeded. The confusion would have served us well if we had plans to break someone out. I was mildly amused when we were allowed inside without passing through the metal detector or being searched. I couldn’t tell if there were angels present.
Our ambulance left deep tracks in the meticulously raked gravel driveway. Meticulous, because every day the inmates spend hours in the scorching sun, raking every driveway in the prison compound. We backed up to the hospital door, unloaded the gurney, and went inside.
Our information was sketchy. I asked a guard if he was being released early because he was sick.
“Heck, no!” She said with a laugh. “We don’t let anyone out before their time is up. If they die here, they die here….and we have plenty of people die in here all the time.”
I walked over and introduced myself. Timothy’s cracked lips trembled with fear as he stared straight ahead. Tears rolled down his cheeks. Stuttering badly, he tried in vain to form words that made sense. The prison nurse put her arm around him and asked what was wrong. Stammering and stuttering, searching for the right words, he strung together a short phrase.
“I don’t….want…. to be…. a burden….”
I took the nurse aside and asked for all the information she had. Timothy was in his early 30’s, had HIV, a brain tumor, and right-sided weakness from a stroke, which left him unable to speak clearly. He had a Foley catheter and a PEG tube for feeding. He was being sent to an unknown destination for hospice care. His fear was that the one responsible for taking care of him would be burdened by his extensive medical needs.
The nurse needed to know the name of the facility we were taking him to. We didn’t have a name, just an address. We called dispatch, but they didn’t have a name either. My partner Googled the address.
“It looks like a private residence. There’s no business name and it’s in a residential neighborhood.”
Timothy spoke up and asked what the address was. We told him. After a long pause, he smiled.
I was clear now that he was going to his sister’s house and a hospice nurse would meet him there. That information helped. The likelihood of him actually being a burden to his family was somewhat lessened. Hospice nurses do an excellent job of preparing family members to provide care while they take care of the more technical issues. I put my hand on his shoulder and reassured him that he wouldn’t be a burden to his family.
We helped him up from the wheelchair and with measured, slow steps he positioned himself to sit on the gurney, his frail frame still draped with the white cotton blanket. The hospital building was well air-conditioned. I was getting cold after just a few minutes inside.
“You won’t have to worry about being cold, Timothy. It’s about 105 (40 C) outside. Even with the air conditioning on, it’ll be 90 (32 C) degrees in the back of the ambo.”
In staccato phrases, he asked where his medications were. The nurses looked at one another and shrugged their shoulders. He said he had a bag of meds in his cell that were supposed to go with him, but no one knew where they were. They told him the prison’s policy was to ship out any personal belongings left behind by inmates. He wasn’t reassured.
His favorite nurse gave him one more hug before we loaded him up. More tears. She dried his eyes and gave him a few tissues for the road then we put him in the back of the ambo.
Leaving the prison was a strange ordeal. Since moving to Arizona, I’ve transported dozens of inmates. We always have two guards. And the inmates are always shackled.
But not today.
We stopped at the first gate and a guard climbed in, clutching a pile of papers. He sat next to me on the bench seat.
“This is so weird”, the guard said. “There aren’t any guards going along. No chase car. No shackles. We never see anyone leave in an ambulance without shackles and a guard.”
He gave Timothy a check for $50 and had him sign for it. He explained what the rest of the papers were for and hopped out the back door. We approached the next gate. Another guard opened the back door. He took Timothy’s yellow Department of Correction ID and gave him a new white one. Timothy looked at the picture on his new ID card with disgust, turned to me, and said, “Can…..we….burn…..this?”
We both laughed.
He asked the guard about his bag of medications.
“We have 12 bags of medications inside, but none of them are yours. I don’t know where yours are, but when they turn up, we’ll ship them to you.”
He wished Timothy good luck then closed the door. We pulled out of the compound onto the main road. My patient was a free man.
Well, sort of.
A few miles down the road, I asked if he had anything special he wanted to eat for his first meal. Words and phrases fell from his lips but nothing made sense. He couldn’t say the name of his favorite restaurant.
He shook his head.
I rattled off all the burger places I could think of, but missed each time.
“Cali… Cali… in and in…”
A big smile and a nod of agreement. I asked if he was going to order off the regular menu or the secret menu.
“Four by four”, he said with a grin.
The thought of eating a good burger must have put him in a better frame of mind as he told me what was on the legendary “Four by Four”. Four beef patties with cheese and all the fixin’s. Unfortunately, the nurse clued me in to the fact that he frequently vomits after eating solid food.
I asked him what was the hardest part of being in prison. I assumed it might be the manual labor, the disgusting food, the oppressive heat or fear of what other inmates might do to you.
With a somber look, he stared at his feet.
Trying his best to form the right words, he explained the feelings that come from being shackled everywhere you go; in your cell, in the prison yard, on the bus, in the ambulance; even lying half-dead in a hospital ICU 50 miles from the prison, inmates are never free from the shackles.
“Well, you never have to wear shackles again. Today you’re a free man.”
“I’ll Fly Away” was playing softly in the recesses of my mind. It was about that time when my partner received a call from dispatch telling him they found the missing medications. I broke the news to my new friend.
“It looks like we have to take you back. But this time, no shackles…they found your meds.”
We retrieved the bag of pill bottles then headed out once more – our destination was 81 miles away. I told him I see a lot of people healed and asked if I could pray with him. He smiled and said yes. I laid my hand on his shoulder and asked Papa to bless him with peace, confidence, joy and health. I commanded disease to leave and asked the Holy Spirit to bring His presence.
I asked if he felt anything.
“Well, I suppose that’s better than shackles.”
I prayed one more time then turned my attention to charting. Timothy rested, gazing out the back window of the ambo. God only knows what must be going through his mind.
About thirty minutes went by. He slept a little but was awake again. Staring intently and fidgeting.
“What are you thinking about?”
With his eyes still looking out the back window, he slowly explained that he was thinking about how he’d lived his life.
“I wanted…..to be….a good…..example.”
I can only imagine how this young man must have viewed his life. What kind of bitterness and disappointment was he feeling? What would it be like to wake up tomorrow morning, knowing you’re a free man, trapped inside a life that went horribly wrong?
“Timothy… I was a terrible role model for most of my life. It was only a few years ago that things changed for the better. The doctors I know have a saying – “You learn to make good decisions, by making bad decisions.” It’s never too late to be a good example.”
He smiled, nodded in agreement, wiped away the tears, and rested his head, turning his gaze to the back window.
An hour later we approached his sister’s house. With joy and excitement he told me in the best words he could find when we were going to turn and which stores we would see. His mother greeted us at the back door of the ambulance. Inside, a house full of relatives waited with excitement. I helped him to bed then went to the living room and gave report to the hospice nurse. His mother came from the bedroom.
“He wants to see you before you go.”
I returned to his bedside. He held out his hand. I gently grasped it and we slowly shook hands as he tried to speak. Stammering and stuttering he told me thanks for being so nice to him. I bent down and hugged his frail body. With my head against his, I said, “You’re just awesome, you know that? God loves you and He has a great plan for your future. And if I don’t see you in the future, I’ll see you in the pasture. And remember….it’s never too late to be a good example.”
With tears in my eyes, I made my way to the kitchen, left a copy of my report with the nurse, and headed for the door.
God’s love and compassion just amaze me.
This is an excerpt from the book My Craziest Adventures With God Volume 2.