A bond to be thankful for — every day
They grew up in Boston neighborhoods just a few miles apart as measured on the city’s map, but whose real-world separation cannot be measured by cartographers.
Julie Swain is a nurse at Boston Medical Center. She was born in Dorchester and raised in Neponset. The youngest of eight kids of a plumber and a stay-at-home mom, she lived in a “Leave It to Beaver” neighborhood, where she played stick ball with friends and didn’t have to be home until the street lights came on at twilight.
Jelani Waheed is a newly minted iron worker. His childhood tale in Roxbury is not so soaring. He was arrested for shoplifting at 13 and, for a long time, was in and out of jail, looking for a redemption that never came.
Until it did.
On this Thanksgiving week, their reunion at BMC was warm and genuine. Two friends who have found each other. Each with a deeply personal tale to tell. A story of despair and pain, of compassion and renewal — and eternal thanks.
“Julie saved my life,’’ Waheed told me.
How Julie Swain, 53, came to save Jelani Waheed’s life begins at Quincy College. The mother of three and the wife of her childhood sweetheart, Swain earned her nursing degree there at night and started on the trauma floor at BMC 13 years ago.
She treated gunshot wounds. She saw bone-deep cuts inflicted by knives. She once attended to a man who was shot after winning a rap contest by the guy who came in second.
Something had to change, she decided. And then she raised her hand to help.
“The gunshots are not going to stop,’’ she said. “And I can tell you that if I got shot, or if I were in a horrible accident, I would come here. I say to my husband all the time: ‘God forbid something happens to me. You get me to Boston Medical Center.’ Because they have saved more people in this hospital who probably should not have walked out that door. And they’re still coming in here. And then they get discharged.’’
Then what? That’s the question Julie Swain sought answers for. What happens when the hospital stay is over? When the insurance runs out? When the wounds need new dressings?
The answer is the program that led Julie Swain to the home bedside of Jelani Waheed 14 months ago.
It’s a violence intervention and advocacy program to which Swain and her BMC superiors like Elizabeth Dugan are committed. It’s care that blends medical treatment with guidance and support — a bridge between the hospital and home. A bridge of hope.
Julie Swain brings her nursing degree with her when she visits patients at their homes. She also brings macaroni and cheese. Or a smoke detector. Or a refrigerator. Or access to the local food bank.
In September 2017, when Jelani Waheed was shot in the left leg outside his local corner grocery store in Dorchester on a Sunday evening, he hid under a porch for safety, and soon was in an ambulance that would take him to BMC.
“After I got shot, I went to the hospital and once I got home I took some Tylenol, but the leg wasn’t feeling right,’’ he told me. He called the hospital. They sent a nurse from its violence intervention program to look in on him. And that’s how he met Julie Swain.
“She was real passionate about what she does,’’ Waheed said. “And she never got into who I was as a person before. She was just focused on me. A lot of people in society make judgments. She just wanted to help.’’
And that’s what she did.
“I said, ‘Sit down and let me take I look,’ ’’ Swain recalled. “I said, ‘This is really swollen, Jelani. And your foot is cool and it’s very puffy.’ His pulses were dim. I said, ‘I really don’t like the way this looks. I think you should come back with me.’ ’’
She didn’t let go. What followed was more hospital care, the discovery of potentially deadly blood clots. Care from someone who had made a connection with her patient.
“Julie really saved my life,’’ the 32-year-old Waheed said.
“There were times I called her at 2 or 3 in the morning because you need someone to talk to for comfort,’’ he said. “She’ll pick up the phone. There are times she brought me food. Cookies from Whole Foods. She goes the extra mile.’’
Waheed’s physical recovery has accompanied what city officials and BMC clinicians say is an essential lifestyle change.
“We are less engaged with other clients who we’ve worked with who are still debating the clean life,’’ said Dugan, director of BMC’s Violence Intervention Advocacy Program. “Jelani’s living it. He’s in it. He’s made the transition because we know who’s in and who’s out.’’
In her office at BMC, Swain has a photo of Waheed. He sent it to her last Christmas. He’s sitting atop a girder on a building under construction near the Alewife MBTA station. He’s wearing a hard hat. And he’s smiling.
“Are you still wearing your safety belt?’’ she asked him. “Don’t forget to wear it every day.’’
Her former patient nodded, smiling softly.
“They call me the smother-mother,’’ Swain said after she released Waheed from a long and hard hug. “I think when you bring your kids into the world, all you want is for them to live a good life, a happy life. You want them to choose kindness. And you want people to be kind to them. Everybody needs somebody. And if I wasn’t here, my kids would really need somebody. It’s just like that with Jelani. I think of him as my child. All of my patients are like my child.’’
Her eyes filled with tears then.
“I’m so thankful for everything. For my husband. My kids are healthy. And that I have a great job.’’
Jelani Waheed’s thankful for that, too. Especially that last part.
And not just on Thanksgiving.
“Every day,’’ he said. “Every day. Every day.’’
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@