Compassion Amongst Differences: Lessons From My Time Working in a Homeless Shelter for Pregnant Women

As future physicians, we will be treating people from backgrounds different than our own; we’ll be tasked with caring for people whose experiences may not be imaginable to us. Interacting, communicating, building trust and relationships, showing respect and empathy are some of the most important things we do. To do this successfully, physicians must have a deeper understanding of other cultures and a respect for each individual’s unique experience. In my medical training, I’ve discovered that this approach is a beneficial one for all of us to take. 


The year before starting medical school, I worked as a live-in staff member at a homeless shelter for pregnant women in Arizona. 

Women from a variety of backgrounds — including Hispanic, Native American, African American and Caucasian — lived at the shelter for varying amounts of time. Unfortunately, each of their incredible stories seemed to have common threads: most of their lives were marked by addiction, violence, trauma, mental illness and current homelessness. Despite the differences that existed in each of their tales, they all had one thing in common, which brought all of them together: they were each carrying a child, and they desperately wanted to improve their lives. 

It took some time for me to adjust to living in this environment. There were so many cultures. Coming together and communicating with people individually, and as a group, was extremely challenging. Miscommunications occurred constantly, and perceptions of a lack of respect often caused problems amongst the group. 

Quickly, I learned that each person could be triggered by very different things. For example, a seemingly harmless word in an otherwise peaceful and light-hearted game “Apples to Apples” triggered a traumatic memory for one woman in our group.  

As a staff member of this home, my main job was to provide support, love, and guidance to these women. 

But I was so different from them. 

We had grown up in what seemed like completely different worlds. I had never encountered the heartbreak that shaped so many of their stories. 


While building relationships was challenging, it proved to be so rewarding. Learning to see past our differences, I was brought to a place of unconditional love and compassion for each woman that walked in our door. I imagine this experience will be similar as a practicing physician, and the lessons I learned there will prove invaluable. 

Regardless of what specialty I choose, I will almost certainly see patients from a variety of backgrounds, each seeking a compassionate doctor that can establish a meaningful relationship, no matter where they came from or what they have experienced.  

It can be difficult to achieve this level of understanding and acceptance, and it definitely takes a significant amount of time, but my experiences with these women showed me the beauty that can come from such relationships. 

Everyone has a unique set of circumstances which often shape the people they become. Our differences, however, do not define us. Instead, they are often the single most powerful component capable of uniting us. 

By looking past our differences and venturing outside of what we know, we can discover the things that we all seem to have in common — a seemingly universal desire for happiness and purpose; the dream of a better life — and, in doing so, find the common thread that unites us all, no matter where we’re from. 

America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination, and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.
— Harry S. Truman
Nicole Odlum (Square).jpg

Nicole Odlum

Osteopathic Medical Student - 2nd year (OMS II)
College of Osteopathic Medicine
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences

Nicole Odlum