Posts Tagged ‘free clinic’

Last week, I was sitting in a leadership training about effective communication. The instructor started off with an explanation of the ladder of inference. This ladder represents stages of thinking that one goes through, often subconsciously, to determine action or inaction after observing a behavior. When we observe something, we often reflect back on the scenario to make sense of it and in doing so, may not remember all of the details (or even have all of the details). Our minds will fill in the blanks, or infer, what is missing to complete the observation so that it makes sense to us.  We determine action or inaction based on this conclusion. The example given to us was an observation of a quiet exchange between two people which concluded with one person abruptly leaving the conversation and exiting the building. We, of course, came up with a variety of colorful, and sometimes even logical, explainations for what we saw and action that should take place as a result. Sometimes this process leads to workplace drama, other times the inference ladder could be applied to whole populations resulting in dehumanizing sterotypes.

As Brett and I were talking with an old friend this week, we realized that the inference ladder had injected it’s influence on our life in a way that we did not realize until now.  I have written before about the influence of an experience Brett and I had during my PA school education at Midwestern University in which both of us spent time at Hesed House in Aurora, Il providing healthcare for the homeless. It was a meaningful experience that lead to the desire to start the DeSales Free Clinic, and eventually, LVHN Street Medicine. In our minds, Hesed House was providing comprehensive care with tons of hours of accessibility from students and volunteers. When we set out a decade ago to open the DeSales Free Clinic, we modeled it after our recollection of Hesed House. In reality, our blueprint for the vision of the DeSales Free Clinic was not Hesed House at all, but rather, the inference ladder at it’s best. A fill-in-the-blank Mad-Libs version of what we had experienced paired with what we thought was needed for the patients. Turns out inference might not always lead to poor communication or office gossip, but maybe every once in a while, a service to a population who is often dismissed as a result of the same thought process. Tricky tricky little ladder, I’m keeping my eye on you!

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Four years ago, we attended our first International Street Medicine Symposium in Boston (MA). I was wide eyed, excited and in hindsight- mostly clueless about the real world of street medicine. Street medicine in the Lehigh Valley did not exist yet, I had never been on street rounds and had only read about such legends in this area of medincine such as Dr. Jim Withers and Dr. Jim O’Connell. I met like minded people and heard tales of incredible collaboration between civil services, shelters, providers and consumers. I saw demonstrations of how humility combined with leadership can change an entire city and its citizens. And I do mean all of them – the housed and unhoused, the voting and non-voting, the overachieving students and the retired sunset-riders who directly or indirectly reaped the benefit of the Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program (BHCHP). In the subsequent years, we travelled to Dublin, Ireland then San Jose, California and most recently- Geneva, Switzerland. Each conference provided new insights, new data, new frameworks, new friendships. As Dr. Pat Perri, chair of the Street Medicine Institute said at the most recent conference in Geneva- it is like meeting aliens from the same planet.

As I sit on my flight returning from Geneva, I am struck by the lecture I had the privilege of hearing yesterday by Nick Maguire (Southampton, UK). He is a psychologist with a brilliant mind and a wicked English sense of humor who has a way of making sense of the behavior chaos that we observe on a regular basis on the streets and in the shelters. His points were so profound to me that I have hardly been able to think of much else. But as he started his lecture, he told us how much this conference means to him. As he says, it is a bucket filler when the world is so often full of bucket emptiers. We come to this conference and are renewed with our sense of purpose and inspired by the brilliant minds from all across the globe that have so committed themselves to such a worthy cause. People who have left lucrative positions in pursuit of a meaningful contribution. People who risk arrest by providing medical care on the street. People who accept that possibility that everyone you know professionally and personally might think that you are crazy for doing this type of work.
As Nick was speaking, I glanced over my right shoulder and saw Jim Withers sitting toward the back of the room as he so often does and thought about how it feels to know that your vision is being shared and LIVED by so many people. Inspiration can be a fickle thing- there one day, and then gone the next. Sometimes people act on their inspiration but, action can also be fleeting. It is inspiration that makes us come back from church camp when we were kids and throw away all of our excess toys, cd’s (back when we used such antiquated objects to listen to music) and other items we deemed unnecessary once we realized that living a simpler life for a week wasn’t so bad after all. But three months later, there we are in our rooms with piles of newly accumulated junk that we forgot we had decided we could live without. Fleeting. But to inspire and then foster inspiration that changes the trajectory of how people LIVE is something quite different. And for me, the International Street Medicine Symposium is like inspiration on Arnold Schwartzeneger dosed steroids.

Thanks Street Medicine Institute. Bucket filled. Lid applied. Pressing on.

The vastness of need can seem endless.  When Brett and I started the DeSales Free Clinic, we had some experience under our collective belts to try to guide the creation of something that would be both meaningful and sustainable.  As it grew, so did our awareness about the larger problems facing the homeless population. Things like personal safety, humiliation, lack of affordable housing and lack of institutional loyalty.  It became easier to figure out reasonable treatment plans that actually had a chance of working because the context of their lives were so much clearer.

At some point, we started to become aware of the needs of other vulnerable and disenfranchised populations that were all around us. Human trafficking victims.  Domestic violence. Veterans. We learned that recently released inmates are 12.7x more likely to die within two weeks of release from prison than someone else living in their same state (Binswanger, NEJM,2007).  I still sometimes feel like a young PA student at Midwestern University all over again learning about the people that we share our world with but know very little about.  It is like standing in a dark room with the door closed. Then, someone turns on the hallway light and you see a small bit of light spread over onto your side of the carpet. Who turned on the light and who is on the other side of the door? Do you crack the door open and peak quickly? Do you fling the door open and boldly shout “Who goes there?”. Or do you retreat from the door and figure whoever turned on the light, didn’t really mean for you to see it anyway.  I think of the door as status quo.  It is always there and it is always accepted both socially and professionally. These populations often give us opportunities to engage them. They flick on the light in the hallway to see what happens to the door.  But all to often, we choose to retreat from the door and maintain the status quo.  The door never opens. Soon enough, the light turns back off and all goes back to the way it was.  But sometimes, someone flings the door wide open and invites the light in. Sometimes the door is opened by a patient. And sometimes the door is opened by a provider.  As it turns out, the light, in fact, is hope. And hope is just about the most powerful thing two people can share. A patient of Brett’s commented that he let the light in for her for the first time. Perhaps it was hope for her but little did she know that her willingness to let the light in  provides an understand that allows the light to be shared with others and the status quo to be challenged.

 

 

Sitting on a tarmac outside of the Newark NJ airport, I am trying to wait patiently for my plane to take off. I hear mostly white noise as people are shuffling to their seats and stuffing oversized bags into small overhead compartments. I look to my right and see a recent DeSales PA Program graduate sitting a few seats away. In the midst of our boarding process, I hear words being shared about street medicine and homelessness to the unsuspecting middle seat passenger. In 6 hours, Seth could have her convinced to attend the 11th Annual International Street Medicine Conference with us.

 

While I don’t often spend much time reflecting back on progress over time, I find that preparing for conferences like these tends to send me back to a time when I knew less in both knowledge and people. Two years ago, Brett and I attended our first International Street Medicine Symposium in Boston. We had read so much about the world-renowned Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP) founded and flourished by Dr. Jim O’Connell. I had followed their website for years and had a visit to BHCHP on my bucket list for years. (Hey, some people sky dive, I visit homeless programs.) The opportunity presented itself for this visit with just a few weeks notice. Generous support from both of our sponsoring institutions (to let us go) and family (to keep our kids) allowed Brett and I to travel that Fall to Boston. It was the first time we were able to see a mature and robust healthcare for the homeless program and see first hand how something like that is grown and cultivated over time. Each member of BHCHP seemed to share the vision that had begun more than 20 years before. They were motivated, enthusiastic and committed. At a dinner reception after the first day, Brett and I met Dr. Jim O’Connell for the first time. He was genuinely interested in our small but eager programs. I mentioned that the DeSales Free Clinic has an operational budget of about $18,000. I’ll never forget his response. “You do all of that with $18,000? I have a multimillion dollar budget. It sounds like I have something to learn for you.” I was dumbfounded. You? Learn something from me? It sounded laughable ( and still does) but he was sincere. And a reflection of how all Street Medicine Programs are treated by their peers. This type of interaction has been repeated many times over as street medicine programs come from all over the world, once a year, to learn, share, eat, drink and be merry. Dr. Jim Withers of Operation Safety Net (Pittsburgh, PA) once told me that he thinks that people at this conference and his patients sometimes understand him better than his family. (True)

Now, we are heading to San Jose (CA) for this years conference. Our programs have grown exponentially since that first trip to Boston. So many ideas were illuminated, so many seeds planted. We are travelling with 8 other street medicine team members- 2 University of South Florida SELECT medical students, 2 DeSales University physician assistant students, 2 recent graduates of the DeSales PA Program, LVHN Street Medicine’s new case manager and new clinical coordinator. It is hard to imagine the life trajectories that can change when armed with the knowledge that comes from conferences like these. Brett and I sometimes joke that it feels like you are going away to camp. The time is short, the bond is strong.

Caterpillars are not particularly ferocious creatures. Slow and steady and according to my children, very hungry. I am not even sure that they make any noise at all. Or, come to think of it, have any teeth. They do their thing in their unassuming way and eventually make it to butterfly utopia. Silently and without bells or whistles, they make the world a more beautiful place. I have often marveled at the way passion can turn an otherwise quiet and unassuming human into a bull in a china closet. I am certain you have witnessed this phenomenon and it can happen to any of us. Once, while sitting in an ethics lecture some years back, a girl who I had never heard even speak suddenly found her voice and schooled the room about the seemingly double standard in the world regarding when life begins. Looking around, her point had not only been made, but her peers were blown away by the passion that was residing within her.

Advocates for many causes are much like the girl I just described. I remember a neighbor I had who loved animals. She always had a foster animal that she was rehabilitating for adoption. She would spend hours nursing the animal back to health. Once, I got up to go to the bathroom late at night only to glance out the window and see her sitting beneath a porch light picking fleas out of a sad lump of fur. I didn’t understand it then, but I do now. For some people, it is animals or organic food. The environment or breast cancer or autism or homelessness. World hunger, toxic waste or children in Africa. The cause is different but the root is the same. All causes need passion like this. It is what inspires other people to give two rats patooties about something they otherwise couldn’t care less about. I often think that I relate more to people who are passionate about SOMETHING (even if I fall into the rats patootie category about the cause) than those who are indifferent about EVERYTHING.

I am often asked how we do it all. I can see the look in people’s eyes as they ask the question. It is a third happy, a third bewildered and a third concerned. They know we have many clinics and homeless responsibilities. I myself work one full time job and two per diem jobs in addition to my obligations to the homeless. We have three children and other community responsibilities. I know why they are worried and why I am not. The answer is simple. I am compelled. I know that it is not I who is in charge of this master plan. Tenui nec dimmitam- latin for “I have taken hold and I will never let go.” This phrase reminds me to breathe easy, let it go (not the Frozen kind) and have courage.

Caterpillar roar.

I’ve never given a eulogy before. While preparing for his, I realized I really didn’t know much about him, but felt I understood him. The two words that best described him were courage and character. Not usually the first two words that come to mind when picturing a man who made his home in a drainage pipe for almost 5 years. He never left because he said, “It was a good spot.” In fact, none of the homeless providers knew who he was until the day he came into our hospital complaining of abdominal pain. At the time, it seemed like his life was finally turning around. He had a job. After months of trying, he got a job which required an almost 10 mile walk each way daily. He was saving his money and had an apartment picked out closer to his work so he could, “walk to it,” which always made be chuckle when he said it.

“Courage” describes him so well because the day I met him (in the hospital) was the day I told him he had a terminal illness and only a few months to live. He smiled his crooked smile that I would see so much over the next few months, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “Well, I guess that’s the way it goes….. What do I do now?” At first I wasn’t sure he understood what I just said so I repeated it and his reaction made me understand that he did understand, and simply had a degree of bravely rarely seen. He asked me what they would do with him after he dies. I honestly wasn’t sure so I asked what he would like us to do. He said all he wanted was a box with a cross on it but nothing else. He also told me he was Catholic but hasn’t attended church in about 15 years and wanted to know if it was ok to see a priest.

We told some of the local landlords about his situation and helped with getting an apartment for $250 a month so he wouldn’t have to spend his last days in the drainage pipe, no matter how good of a spot it was. He saw me at least weekly in the soup kitchen and was visited by our hospice nurse much more often in his new apartment. We also arranged for him to go into our inpatient hospice unit whenever he wanted, even if it meant his stay could last months, which isn’t the normal procedure for an inpatient hospice unit. He said he would stay out as long as he could so the people who were sicker than him could have the bed. By making that decision, it meant he would continue to struggle finding food daily, walking miles to different soup kitchens even as he grew weaker. I soon learned that his weekly walk to see me at the soup kitchen was the barometer he used to tell him when it was time to enter the hospice unit.

As time went on he grew so weak he could no longer make the walk to see me, was vomiting all food and drink, and was even having trouble getting around his apartment. Also, the heat broke in his apartment—in January—which he said didn’t bother him because he still had a bed and 4 walls, which is more than he had the last 5 year. With his nurses help, we convinced him to go to the hospice unit and he agreed. He wouldn’t go until he cleaned his apartment, packed up all his belongings, and took it to the shelter to give them to someone who needed them. We tried to talk him out of the strenuous task of cleaning when he was barely able to walk but he wouldn’t hear of it. The landlord was so nice to rent to him at such a low price he couldn’t leave the apartment dirty, he said. When I think of his strong character, I consider that for a man who had so little in life, and was now so close to death, his biggest concerns was for the sicker people in the hospital than he, the other homeless who were more in need of clothes than he, and not violating the trust of his landlord who first showed trust in him.

While delivering my eulogy I looked out in the full seats in the funeral home and was struck by how many people he brought together. All of his caretakers and an old acquaintance from high school came to say goodbye with a priest presiding in front of his beautiful box with a cross adorning the top. In the end, he got all he wanted, and we received a lesson of a lifetime.

-BF

I have been working weekly at several nursing homes in our area for the last few years. I could spend an entire posting talking about how I think our elderly nursing home population ought to fall in the ‘underserved’ category but I will spare you that soap box for today.   I am extremely grateful to have bosses who understand my predilection for the homeless population and for leaving no stone unturned when I’m interviewing patients. It never ceases to amaze me that was the right series of questions you can uncover a world of hurt that the patients been through. When we close our eyes and picture a typical nursing home patient we are stuck with an image of grandma- with her tight rows of freshly curled hair resulting in the beloved (and highly flammable) grandma-helmet-hair. Or maybe a shuffling old man proudly sporting his WWII VFW hat with pins from his uniform.

You are far less likely picturing someone whose reflection resembles yours.

Many of my younger patients have lived in our nursing home system for quite a long time for one reason and one reason only. No one realized they were homeless at any point during the hospital stay or early on in the nursing home stay. Once they started to complete the rehab goals, the social services team comes to the realization that there is no discharge plan. I sometimes referred to this phenomena is the “fog of war- medicine style”.   After 9/11, George W. Bush made many decisions that he later reflected upon in his book “Decision Points”. He realized that perhaps they were not ultimately the best decisions, however, he felt he had done the best he could with the information available and the time allotted to make the decision. He cited the fog of war it during the decision-making process. This is common throughout history and no one really (successfully) faults people for it.

This phenomena also happens in medicine.

It goes like this: Patients are banged up, super sick or maybe have had a decompensation an otherwise chronic stable medical condition which leads to the hospitalization. In the world of hospital medicine, length of stay in the hospital is looked at very closely. In the haste of making a reasonable discharge plan there’s often a lot of questions that frankly just aren’t asked for a variety of reasons. Case managers and medical teams have a difficult job and are often asked to do the impossible. But sometimes, I think we don’t dig deeper into the answers our patients give us about their living situation. For example, patients often say they are going to live with their friend after discharge. At face value, this sounds great. Discharge plan complete. Until you ask if they have talked to their friend about this plan. Often, the answer is no. Or, another common scenario- a patient says they were living with a brother, sister, friend etc. prior to coming to the hospital. Somehow, this is translated by the discharge team that the patient will be discharged back to their prior living situation. No one asks, and the patient doesn’t mention that they can’t or don’t know if they can return. The patient is discharged from the acute care setting (hospital) to their short-term rehab facility and everything seems great until a simple question like “Hey, where you going next?” is asked. The response – a blank look from the patient and then silence sets in.

In the time that Brett and I have been in the nursing home system, we’ve noticed a large variety of patients whose social situations and living situations perhaps were tenuous at best prior to hospitalization. Homeless or not, many people’s social support is based on superficial interaction. Hanging out, watching TV, playing card, shooting the bull (not to be confused with cow-tipping. I am from Indiana after all). In the face of acute illness, that social ‘support’ is tested and often disappears when these patients need the most. The couch is suddenly unavailable. The car has been repossessed because of missed payments. The housing has dried up. Perhaps your truck driver who is now an insulin-dependent diabetic or perhaps had seizures and is no longer allowed to drive the truck. Not only does this person suffer from a loss of employment but many truckers sleep in the cab of their truck. They don’t have permanent housing because they live a life on the road.

A few weeks ago, Brett and I asked case managers from three different nursing homes in three different parts of the Lehigh Valley how many patients they thought were homeless in their facility. Without consulting a census or really doing anything scientific, they came up with 22. That’s 22 patients who have absolutely no where to go if they were to be discharged right now. This is astonishing. What complicates the situation further is that case managers who work in skilled rehab facilities don’t have the training to find housing for patients who are homeless. This isn’t a typical part of any case management training and is purely learned on the job or because of personal interest. And therefore the patients who are easier to move out of the nursing home seem to move out of the nursing home. The homeless patients tend to sit … hang out… and stay. There’s nowhere for them to go and no resources by which to move them.

The Point In Time (PIT) is a physical head count of the homeless on one given night that is universally chosen. Over 3000 cities participate in performing the PIT on this date in an effort to count the homeless and attempt to extrapolate trends about homelessness in your area and nationally. The data is reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). While HUD says it “does not directly determine the level of a community’s grant funding” (hud.gov), it is required information to report when applying for HUD funding. It would be hard to imagine that those numbers are not somehow taken into account when determining distribution of funding. It is not a perfect sampling tool by any means (a different soap box for a different posting) but it is concerning that these ‘nursing home patients’ are unaccounted for. These are patients that if they were not in a nursing home would be in one of our shelters, on the street or perhaps (if lucky) squeezing out another couch to sleep on. In essence, they should be recognized and counted.

In the last post, I talked about recognition of existence in the context of being a fledgling street medicine program. This same concept applies here too. In order to properly allocate care to the homeless, we must first know where they are. To know where they are, you have to know where to look. The homeless are all around us, hidden in plain sight, waiting to be recognized.