Yesterday, at 3:45am, John Foster died.
Nine months was all I had known John and in that time, I never really knew him well. He was a small, quiet man who walked in the shadow of Raymond as his constant companion and lived under the bridge at Truman and Holmes. I don’t know where John was born, but I do know he had an ex-wife and two grown sons; none of whom he had contact with for many years. He was a cabinet maker, but I don’t know if he made them by hand or just put them together in a factory. Now, I will never know much more than that.
John would come to ScrapsKC with Raymond, help empty the trash, sweep the floor and sit and drink hot, black coffee. His backpack weighed about 40 pounds and he often complained that walking back up the hill from the West Bottoms was hard for him because of his COPD. Yet, every time Raymond came to the store, so would John.
About 6 months ago, John began to have a regular cough and continually asked for ibuprofen in hopes that it would cause the cough to go away. He went to a hospital that treats the indigent a couple of times, once staying three days, and they didn’t diagnose anything. Over the months, it became more difficult for John to talk and more importantly to eat. His weight began decreasing until he became gaunt and his cheeks and eyes were hollow. Raymond and several other homeless men became increasingly concerned about his health and asked if I could take him to the doctor.
We had to wait three weeks, but John and I were scheduled to see a doctor. Two days before the appointment, John came to Scraps and began hallucinating, his weight had dropped dramatically, he’d nod off frequently and he could hardly breath. It was apparent that he would die on the street that night if he didn’t get help.
Fortunately, two of our volunteers were able to cover the store while I took John to the ER at St. Luke’s on the Plaza. After many hours of nurses, doctors, and tests, it was revealed that John had throat cancer. The tumor was so large that it was pulling his tongue down into his throat and the tumor was blocking his esophagus and airway. He had about a centimeter of space from which to breath. At this point, I sighed relief in knowing what was wrong however my next concern was how does a homeless man receive care for something so life threatening. My greatest fear was that the hospital would just discharge him and allow him to die alone on the street.
“They took him directly to ICU and began a month long journey of generous, kind, loving and dignified care of him… through it all, the nurses and doctors provided amazing care for him.”
St. Luke’s never allowed my fear to become a reality. They took him directly to ICU and began a month long journey of generous, kind, loving and dignified care of him. Over the month, he had an emergency tracheotomy, tremendous disorientation, went through detox, a feeding tube inserted and through it all, the nurses and doctors provided amazing care for him. He was bathed regularly, had his covers tucked in, and was fed (albeit through a feeding tube but that was a process in and of itself).
John finally regained some strength and cognition and was transferred to Carmel Hills Nursing Home in Independence. Unfortunately, when I arrived to visit he had stripped off all of his clothing, was trying to unhook his feeding tube and was completely disoriented. The nurse, who hadn’t even worked with him yet, gently calmed him, dressed him and got him back into bed never complaining once about the situation. When John was finally stable, I sat with him, held his hand and read scripture, sure that these would be his final hours.
Later that evening, I received a call, that his breathing was labored and would be going back to the Centerpointe Medical Center in Independence. Two days later, I was able to visit and again, he was being treated with love and compassion but most of all dignity. John regained his strength again and we joked around, he begged for hot black coffee and I felt confident he was on the mend and we would soon find out about future treatment.
Again, he headed back to Carmel Hills, and I received a call from the Activities Director who wanted to know what types of things he would like to do while he was there. Several hours later, at 3:45 this morning, he had died.
Now what? Over this two month journey I have learned a tremendous amount about death and dying in the homeless community. After speaking with dozens of nurses and social workers, I learned that there is a generous health community in the Kansas City Metro that cares for each and every person with love and respect just because they are human. I learned that I actually knew more about John than I thought and advocated for him in every way I knew how. But, now that it is the end, I only want one thing for John. I want the world to know that he was here.
Please take a moment to pray for him, his family, wherever they are, and for Raymond who lost his little buddy or have a cup of hot, black coffee in his memory. I am grateful to have known him and to know that he is at peace.
About Scraps KC
Scraps KC is a non-profit, creative reuse center that strives to reduce industrial waste and home recyclables through the upcycling and creative reimagining of products and materials normally destined for a landfill. Creative reuse is the process of adding creativity to an already manufactured item to produce a new function in dynamic and artistic ways. Discarded items are resold to the public, such as families, teachers, artists, and other groups for further creative reuse. Workshops, birthday parties and other events also are provided by request. Check the website for the latest events at
Scraps KC at ScrapsKC.org or follow Scraps KC on Facebook.