Talking about trauma: Ride-along in Central gives Cleveland doctors new insight into patients’ lives

“People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care,” Barbara Anderson tells a dozen people squeezed into a van.

The words resonate on this gray November morning, as five doctors and a nurse take a “reverse ride-along” of Cleveland’s Central neighborhood with Anderson and other ride facilitators.

The idea comes from ride-alongs that citizens can take with police to gain a better understanding of their work, says Jan Thrope, executive director of Inner Visions. “After I went on one, I got the idea to reverse things by having police come with us to see neighborhoods through the eyes of community members. The name just stuck, because the experience is designed to help people see things from a reverse perspective.”

The Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood, a program of the Sisters of Charity Foundation, has hosted a dozen of these ride-alongs since 2017, with about 420 participants, mostly Cleveland police cadets. Recently, the program expanded to include medical professionals. Organizers hope to add new fields in 2020, including teachers and law students.

“When you bring people together from different backgrounds and communities, you see an amazing spark in energy and interaction,” says ride co-leader Joe Black, a Promise Neighborhood engagement manager. “It exposes that we don’t have enough human interaction.”

Equal space

Doctors are invited to the reverse ride-alongs because they possess a degree of privilege and authority, Black says. “The power dynamic is most pervasive in minority and low-income communities, which is why we seek to connect community members and medical professionals in a space where all participants are equal. In this space, we use relationship-building approaches to develop solutions that benefit all parties.”

<span class="content-image-text">Doctors meet community members during a reverse ride-along of Cleveland's Central neighborhood in November.</span>Doctors meet community members during a reverse ride-along of Cleveland's Central neighborhood in November.Themes of trust, listening, trauma, transportation, displacement, health, and wealth are touched upon during the four-hour journey. The carefully planned itinerary includes two stops for dialogues with local residents.

“This isn't a ‘poverty tour’ where spectators peer through vehicle windows at the community,” Trope says. “In our relationship-building ride-alongs, community members are riding with us as we go from place to place, stopping to share conversations.”

The trip starts in the lobby of St. Vincent Charity Medical Center. “This is new for us, but we’re willing to experience some new stuff,” says Dr. Vasant Temull, a third-year chief medical resident from Trinidad and Tobago. He is looking forward to meeting people outside the walls of the hospital, which chiefly serves Central.

“We really want you to see the assets that exist in this neighborhood,” Black says as people pile into the van. He asks everyone to share why they are taking the trip, then goes first. “I’m here motivated to bring people together, to learn more deeply about our community, and why and how we can work together to make it a better place.”

Talk to each other

Anderson, founder of Another Chance of Ohio, adds, “The only way we're going to ever know each other is to talk to each other, to meet each other and to be open to the fact that some people are not us, some people are different, based on their life experiences.”

The van passes a federally subsidized public housing estate, built in 1935. Three fourths of Cuyahoga County’s public housing is in the Central neighborhood, Black says, “which suggests the significance of concentrated poverty in our community.”

Turning onto East 36th Street, Black says, “We have community members who have come to me and said, ‘Living in this community, I've been diagnosed with PTSD, just based on my experiences.’ Some of that is related to violence. Some of that is related to limited access to food.”

As the van nears the massive Northern Ohio Food Terminal on Woodland Avenue, Thrope points out that Central has no grocery store. “So the irony is there’s all this fresh, good food coming into the terminal, right in the neighborhood, yet they can’t get access to it, because it’s shipped out to the grocery stores.”

<span class="content-image-text">Dr. Luana Hearn of St. Vincent Charity Medical Center.</span>Dr. Luana Hearn of St. Vincent Charity Medical Center.Transportation troubles

The discussion shifts to doctor visits. Getting to and from appointments can be challenging if you need a ride. This becomes a problem when doctors are delayed and patients have to wait, says Dr. Luana Hearn, a third-year medical resident from Brazil. “They get so stressed out, and they leave, because otherwise they don't have a way to go home. So I’d say transportation is a big issue.”

Anderson describes a previous ride-along when police cadets in uniform visited a daycare center. “Two young girls didn't mean to but became afraid and cried and moved away, wanting to be somewhere they thought was safe, in somebody's arms. They wanted to definitely be away from those police officers.”

It was difficult for Anderson to watch. “You knew they had experienced some kind of trauma, that once they saw those police officers, they became immediately afraid. And it took them back to that experience.”

Central is filled with trauma, Black says. “So what is our responsibility, or what opportunities exist when traumatic experiences are shared?”

“What do you do with it when the trauma is brought to you, when someone shares their story of trauma?” Thrope says. “I don't know that there's a universal answer. ... It's important for them to talk about the trauma, but only in the safety of knowing that right now, they're not in current trauma.”

Trauma hits home

The conversation continues during a stop at the Friendly Inn settlement house. “How has other people's trauma transferred to you and your practice?” Black asks the doctors.

“I have one example,” Hearn says. She tells how a patient with diabetes had trouble taking insulin. So she scheduled monthly visits, hoping he’d eventually learn. Finally, his blood sugar levels improved. She was relieved that he was getting better.

“And then I asked him, ‘What did you do different?’ And he’s like, ‘I don't think I did anything different,’ so we kept talking. He actually lost his food stamps. He was starving at home. That's why he was controlling sugars. He lost a lot of weight. I just felt devastated. That took me a long time to actually ... [her voice cracks] … Yeah, I'm sorry. ... That was crazy.”

<span class="content-image-text">Dr. Vasant Temull of St. Vincent Charity Medical Center.</span>Dr. Vasant Temull of St. Vincent Charity Medical Center.Temull jumps in to rescue his colleague. “So we experience a lot of trauma, you know, working in a health care institution,” he says. “But I must say ... it has made us closer to our community. And sometimes I think we're better able to communicate with those around us. ... We try to help them ... to tell us what exactly is going on, because it takes some time, just like with this guy ... for us to get to know each other and for us to figure out what's the problem.”

Life and death situations are a daily part of their job. “It’s very traumatic to us,” he says. “I wouldn't say everyone deals with it perfectly. But it's part of what we do, and we try to use it in a positive way to make us stronger, better capable of dealing with the next person.”

Numerous partners support the reverse ride-alongs, including Third Federal Savings and Loan, the city of Cleveland and the Better Health Partnership. The NFL Network series “Indivisible,” hosted by Nate Boyer, recently filmed a segment on the ride-alongs that will air during the playoffs.

Calls to Action:

  • To participate in the next reverse ride-along, please email or call 440-490-7539.
  • Volunteer opportunities include experience facilitator, group participant, data analysis, and logistics coordinator.
  • Learn about health and wellness services in your community by checking out Healthy Cleveland.
This article is part of our "CLE Means We: Advancing Equity & Inclusion in Cleveland" dedicated series, presented in partnership with Jumpstart, Inc., Greater Cleveland Partnership/The Commission on Economic Inclusion, YWCA of Greater Cleveland, and the Fund for Our Economic Future.

About the Author: Chris Ball

Chris Ball became managing editor of FreshWater Cleveland in August 2019 after more than 20 years of editing and writing for The Plain Dealer. A graduate of Hawken School and Oberlin College, he previously worked for Crain Communications, the Lorain Morning Journal, The Free Times and The Cleveland Edition. A lover of Frisbee and film, Ball wrote a DVD review column for The PD for 15 years. He won a Press Club of Cleveland award in 2018 for Best Headline Writer in Ohio. Ball stepped down as managing editor of FreshWater in April 2020.