Mel Van Nice can be found near the front lines. The 29-year-old never has to think long for the answer to anything, and when a problem hits, she already seems to know what it is. In the cold, after riots and in moments of chronic illness, her most demanding function in the group is comforting and repairing those who are caught somewhere in the middle. Last Saturday, Van Nice and the rest of the group's medics treated 45 people for injuries sustained during the demonstration. Right now, though, her roster is one patient long.
A young occupier has accidentally broken his last bottle of insulin. He has no more, no insurance and no chance of a refill until November 30, but Van Nice shows no worry. In the the next five minutes, she walks him through five options involving both clinics and pharmacies. But the point is, she will make sure he is taken care of. In the same five minutes, she asks three different people if they are warm and gives two of them skeptical looks when they reply in the affirmative. She pulls her own coat tighter.
Van Nice has served as a registered nurse for four-and-a-half years, but until Occupy Denver, she remained mostly absent from the community health sphere. The results are not obvious. "When I started off, I thought I'd be an adrenaline junkie ER nurse," says Van Nice, who currently works full-time as an ICU nurse at Porter Adventist Hospital, "but activism, advocacy and preventive health care are huge passions for me, and the community health aspect has really grown on me. I'm a firm believer in hand up, not hand out."
Van Nice's rhythmic, assured speech is frequently interrupted by new and increasingly diverse requests for her attention: In nights as cold as the last one, it is her role to coordinate trips to shelters and volunteer homes, a process that demands screening, monitoring and careful planning. Van Nice knows and checks up on the recurring medical conditions, a handful of which are chronic, of everyone at camp, and she knows jungle rot when she sees it, as she has here.
"For me, it's never really been a First Amendment thing, my reason for coming here," Van Nice says. It's important to note that she comes here often -- literally any time between treating non-occupiers and sleeping for her own health. "Many of my politics align with the movement, but it's just my job to promote health and safety. When you're a medic, you're not a protester: They're two different things."
Yesterday afternoon welcomed Van Nice's first official medical desk at the occupation, a vast improvement over the tiny Bingo table previously allotted to the job. When the occupation began, its medical force developed through a hectic brainstorming session: Van Nice spent hours thinking of everything the group could possibly need for medical treatment before EMS could make it to Broadway and Colfax. The list cost $200 to purchase, though some of it disappeared during the group's first police raid.
Van Nice's official street medic training will develop later this month, but her health care training began at age ten, when she donated her summer (the first of many) to the VA hospital where her mother also worked as a nurse. "The doctors would walk me around and show me gangrenous toes," she says, smiling with a joy the combination of gangrene memories and twenty-degree weather rarely affords. "There were just so many different stories and walks of life in addition to the science aspect."
Soon, Van Nice added nursing homes to her roster as well, until her summer career grew into a nursing degree, a full-time job and full-time volunteer responsibilities that sparked the need to drop out of Regis University's peace and justice studies program earlier this semester. The final decision took time, and she continues to go back and forth on the issue, but chances are good that it began with her first general assembly meeting.
It was also, coincidentally, the first one at Occupy Denver -- and it was a mess. "We sat on the grass of Lincoln Park until a state trooper came up and told us we couldn't say there, so there was this huge split over our First Amendment rights immediately after," Van Nice says. "We had a big circle, and half the people stood on the sidewalk while the other half stayed on the grass. It was impossible. Eventually, we did work together, though, and I learned a lot."
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What, exactly, did she learn?
"Democracy is tedious and frustrating. But it's also beautiful."
More from our Occupy Denver archive: "Occupy Denver: ACLU investigates constitutionality and safety of police action."