The Gift of Shoes and Human Dignity

Isn’t it amazing how a simple pair of shoes can mean so much to some people, while others take them for granted? A pair of shoes can change your life, and can even give you back your human dignity. 

I was in a store a few days ago where a large screen TV was on one of those silly game shows. A woman from the audience was presented with a prize of $5,000 worth of shoes. I stood there wondering who could possibly want (or wear) so many different pairs of shoes. I marveled at the sheer extravagance of it all, when suddenly a distant memory popped into my head.

It was 30 years ago, and I was working at an Intensive Care Unit as a respiratory therapist. One of my patients was an elderly gentleman who had been on a ventilator for weeks. He really touched my heart, because even though he was so ill and had been with us for so long, he never had any visitors. No family, no friends, no pastor, no neighbors. No one. His only human contact came from the staff that took care of him.

He was unable to speak because of the ventilator, but the day came when he was finally weaned off of the ventilator and he was able to talk to us. I patiently coached him how to use his voice, which had been silenced for so long. What would he say?

With a look of distress on his face and tears in his eyes, he rasped, “I have no shoes!” I was stunned, and immediately made attempts to reassure him that he didn’t have to worry about shoes right now. However, nothing I said made a difference. He was distraught as he continued, “What am I going to do now? I don’t even have any shoes!” I became pretty distraught myself. 

I went back to my department at the end of my shift.  With tears in my eyes, I repeated his words to my colleagues. Finally, one of them said, “Let’s get this guy some shoes!” Dollar bills immediately started piling up on the table while two therapists ran upstairs to measure his feet. Our two secretaries gave up their lunch break to run to the local mall with the cash and the measurements.  

An hour later they returned with a pair of tennis shoes and a pair of socks. As a group, we all trooped up to the ICU to give him his gift of shoes. When he opened the box, his eyes filled with tears as he stared at his shoes. I asked him if he wanted to try them on, but he declined, and held his shoes to his chest as he thanked us for the gift.

Our story (and his) spread through the hospital like wildfire. The PR department was contacted. Everyone was deeply touched by our act of kindness and compassion for this man who was alone and destitute.

A few days later I got a call from the head of the PR department. He thanked me and my colleagues for what we did for this patient. However, he informed me, this guy was so wealthy that we didn’t need to buy him any shoes. As a matter of fact, he could easily afford to buy everyone in our entire department a new pair of shoes. Ooops.

Apparently he owned a large ranch about five hours outside of Denver. His wife and their sons were so busy working the ranch, none of them had the opportunity to take the time off of work during their busy season to visit him. Since the entire hospital staff heard the story, we took a lot of good-natured teasing about the whole incident.

Since I still had a special place in my heart for this man, I often visited him after he was transferred to the general floor. His shoes were always on the bedside table, on the window sill, and even in the bed next to him. I learned that he immigrated to this country years ago, and didn’t have a penny to his name. I’m guessing he didn’t have a pair of shoes, either. How can you have any dignity when you don’t even have a pair of shoes to call your own? 

Our PR director said that we didn’t need to buy him any shoes. He was right; we didn’t need to, but we sure did want to. It meant a lot to us, and it certainly meant a lot to a sick, lonely man who was separated from his family for so long.

I came out of my reverie just as that lucky lady stopped screaming over her $5,000 worth of designer shoes. I wondered if they could possible mean as much to her as the $20 pair of tennis shoes meant to my patient, my colleagues, and myself all those years ago. I somehow doubt it.