Gabrielle Bleidorn used to spend every Christmas volunteering with the homeless. So when a nursing post came up a year and a half ago to improve healthcare for homeless people, she knew it was the job for her.
With an 18-year career, the peripatetic homeless and hostel nurse is playing a vital role in the healthcare industry.
“This role feels a bit like having a magic wand,” she says. Ms Bleidorn explains that she is responsible for some teaching in her job, but mostly she travels from hostel to hostel, and occasionally churches, in the Chelsea and Kensington areas of London to help those who are homeless access the care they need.
In a job that requires great patience and a resilient attitude, Ms Bleidorn is never less than passionate about her day-to-day job. Even over the phone, I can tell she’s smiling as she tells me about her role.
“I know my patients so well, inside and out, upside down”
She has a nursing trolley and sets up shop at different locations to perform clinical observations for patients. She typically knows who is at each hostel, but when there is someone new, she introduces herself and asks if they would like an assessment. She also asks previous patients if they have any new medical issues since she’s last helped them, and then she spends time talking to each patient.
“I know them so well, inside and out, upside down,” Ms Bleidorn says. “They come back because they trust me and they know me.”
It’s clear she loves her job and that she is doing something hugely beneficial for a group of people who often miss out on the healthcare we take for granted.
“Most of the people I meet haven’t been to a GP in 10 to 12 years,” Ms Bleidorn says. Often the people she sees know they have health problems but are scared to seek help, she explains. “But you’re there to hold their hand and help them sort it out. They realise it’s okay and you can seek help together.”
“A lot of people who are homeless are isolated and experience destructive lives”
Ms Bleidorn will write to various healthcare services, such as general practitioners, dentists or addiction services, on behalf of the people under her care in order to set up an appointment and help them receive the care they need.
“People who experience homelessness — it’s not just about having a roof,” Ms Bleidorn says. “You have a home to provide identity and a sense of belonging, and a lot of people who are homeless are isolated and experience destructive lives.”
The life expectancy of people who are homeless is only 47 years, Ms Bleidorn tells me.
“It’s quite shocking,” she says. “They are 13 times more likely to be victims of violence.” But troubling statistics motivate Ms Bleidorn to combat the problem. “It doesn’t get sad because I know I can help.”
One way she helps is simply by listening.
“I enjoy connecting with people,” she says. “Everyone has a connection and everyone has a story. It’s interesting to see how they end up like that, and you understand them.
“There’s so many stories of people who I meet, and how I am able to help them move forward with their lives,” she says. She recalls one specific experience of assisting a man who loves art. She helped him begin therapy, and eventually he began giving back to the community himself.
“Several people end up in intensive care units, which has been really sad”
But being a nurse for the homeless is not free of challenges.
“Sometimes it can be a bit scary,” she says. For example, people often have seizures, which requires Ms Bleidorn to ring an ambulance. “I know that person very well, and the fear they have — they want you to be there… you end up going to the hospital with them. Several people end up in intensive care units, which has been really sad.”
In the end, it’s the reward of knowing she is helping literally hundreds of people that makes every hard day worth something great.
“I’d like to make the world a better place with a magic wand,” she says again with a laugh. “And it feels like with this role I can do that.”