Posts Tagged ‘street medicine’

Portland, Oregon is a fascinating city situated on the eastern bank of the Willamette River under the watchful eye of Mount Hood.  As with any city that enjoys a river running through it, the bridges that accompany the river become part of the recognizable landscape that defines its character.  Every thursday night, an army of 150 volunteers turn the space under the Burnside Bridge into a hub of activity and services for Portland’s homeless.  I first learned about NightStrike more than 6 months ago as I was interviewing a prospective PA student who was at DeSales for an interview into our 2016 incoming class.  In high school, she had spent time volunteering under the Burnside Bridge with NightStrike and had sited it as a transformational experience that allowed her to see her own city in a different and profound way.  Brett and I were accepted as speakers at the 2016 National Health Care for the Homeless Conference and Policy Symposium in Portland, Oregon and I decided that NightStrike was something I needed to see for myself.

NightStrike is a program run by Bridgetown Inc and was founded by Executive Director Marshall Snider and his wife Lesley Snider (Program Director) 13 years ago. The organization has 5 employees (including Marshall and Lesley) and in addition to NIghtStrike, have developed several programs targeting the marginalized adults and children in the Portland area. NightStrike alone mobilized over 9600 volunteers serving over 20,000 people experiencing homelessness each year. We arrived at a rented church space near the Burnside Bridge around 630pm and immediately upon entering the orientation space, Marshall and Emily (Development Director) welcomed us to the Program. Orienting over 100 volunteers each Thursday is no small task.  I was impressed by the clear and concise message delivered by Marshall to all the volunteers. The purpose of NightStrike is “Because People Matter” and the common denominator that all humans need and desereve love. He pointed out that the volunteer needs the giving experience just as much as the person needs the blanket and encouraged each volunteer to learn the names and stories of the guests being served. To take on an “Oh there you are!”attitude instead of a “Look here I am” attitude. As an organizer of many volunteers, I particularly appreciated this piece because the message of your organization can be inadvertently misrepresented by the volunteers that are so eager to serve. Another staff member performed the reading of the rules (no photography, let religion come up naturally(if at all), show respect) and safety protocols (walk away from anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, three whistle blows means evacuate calmly and immediately etc).  We then broke into smaller orientation groups for our respective jobs. I was assigned to be a hostess while Brett, Laura, Seth and two friends from Ft. Worth were assigned to the clothing cart. After getting the run down, we all walked down to the bridge where, on average, 350 guests await. The path to the bridge cuts through a green spaces with bubble fountains along the river before arriving at the concrete slabs where we would set up shop.  Rows of Home Deopt style 6 ft tables were set up with folding chairs were already occupied by weary men and women. A mobile dental clinic and a separate mobile medical van created part of the perimeter of our space. The Willamette River and four  occupied barber chairs rounded out the perimeter. A food table with hot chili, drinks and coffee was the first stop for most guests. Other services available that night was a clothing table, library table (with new and used books for exchange), pet food table, a sewing table with two sewing machines to repair clothing, sleeping bags, tents and tarps. I even saw one woman repairing a hot dog costume for a dachshund pup that accompanied his owner everywhere.  There was a bike repair stand with everything from air pumps to tire tubes and chains.  5 volunteers carefully washed the feet of travelers while two more gave manicures to the women. A resource table and veterans table provided critical support for people trying to find their way.

My job was to chit chat with guests. I was strangely appreciative of the fact that I was not the health care provider for the night. I walked around with a thermos full of coffee and poured fresh cups for those waiting in line. I struck up a conversation with a larger than life character named George. A 6’3 black man with a large white beard and a fisherman’s hat. He had fashioned a handmade wooden cart to the back of his bicycle that was packed with elaborate handmade birdhouses.  He told me many tales that evening and emphisized the important points by leaning in, raising his eyebrows and pausing dramatically before letting out the most infectious laugh. During our conversation, many ofther guests stopped by to check out the birdhouses. While George didn’t speak to them, it was clear that he took pride in their interest.

Not all guests were like George. As one would imagine, the homeless are as diverse as we are. Some clean, some not. Some with clear responses to hallcuinations, some not. Some sat quietly, some didn’t. Some preached, some didn’t. But one woman struck me. At first glance, she looked slightly out of place with a fairly new looking hot pink fleece jacket, hair styled, and make up applied. I struck up a converstaion with her and on closer look noticed the all to familiar desperate sadeness in her eyes that comes with not really knowing how you ended up here. She did not reveal any of her story to me other than to say that you do what you have to do to survive.  With that, I poured her a cup of coffee and talked to her about the different resources in the city.

Poverty and how a city assists those who are trying to crawl out from a dark place is a fascinating, and often untold tale, of that which makes up the character of a city. Organizations like NightStrike quietly do the necessary not only to empower the guests, but to remind the volunteers that caring about the homeless population is not futile. In fact, a powerful thing happens when people are guided into being part of the solution.  Well done NightStrike. Well done.

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Today I watched a woman and her boyfriend go “shopping” in our donations room….they have been wearing the same outfits for 2 weeks. They were so grateful for everything we had to offer. I was asked several times, “can we have this?” Every time I smiled and said of course..as they sorted through the items I heard them constantly say to one another, we don’t need that, leave some of those, this is amazing…

You see this couple had a rough past, burned the bridges with their loved ones, the only bridges not burned are through current drug users. They sought out help at a rehab. When they started dating they were kicked out of rehab…tossed to the streets. All of their belongings were kept at the rehab and they have nothing.  They didn’t want to speak badly about the rehab because they felt it had truly helped them. They are now staying in a winter shelter. How do we expect people to stay clean&sober? They fought the fight of withdrawal, found support and are put to the streets. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to stay clean facing the circumstances these people have to face. It’s very sad to me…we lack support in the areas that we need it most, for the people who need it and want it..

This couple, they told me not to worry, they found love and are going to support each other through this mess. I assisted them in getting clothes, hygiene products, nail polish…just so she could feel normal again…

And thank to the person who donated the Uggs…she was ecstatic, you would have thought she won the lottery as she screamed with joy. I wish you could have seen her face.

~Laura LaCroix, R.N.

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.

 

 

Snowpocolypse. Snowmaggedon. Holy -Snow-Batman! Whatever you call it, the snowfall over the last weekend was historic. But something else was happening in Allentown while we were all watching from our windows and marveling at this weather phenomenon.

On Saturday morning, with 9 inches of snow already on the ground, the Warming Station in Allentown sent it’s overnight guests to the streets because they are only operational at night. If it had not been for a local pastor, these people would have been left to try to find a public building to shelter in, a business that was trying to remain open that would allow for loitering or an abandoned building that perhaps no one would be looking for trespassers in. And what about the people who were not at the Warming Station the night before who may not have known about the good Pastor and his open doors?  How could a Warming Station staff street their guests who would need a plan to endure another 10-20 inches of snow before the Station opened again?

It really made me think about whose ‘problem’ the homeless people really are.  Why are there only a few who will take responsibility or, dare I say, ownership over  ‘their’ problems? Are we societally too stoic, compartmentalized and self-determined so that we believe that those who face a blizzard alone and homeless should have thought about that before they ‘made all their bad choices’? Are we worried about becoming too involved, caring too much, knowing too much only to find that there are too many one-way, dead end streets in our society? Do we fear the futility that comes with knowing without being able to act?

It would be easy to blame the operators of the Warming Station for streeting these people in the face of an impending Blizzard. These stations are opened on the heels of a public health concern.  Who wants to have citizens of their town freezing to death on their streets? But it is also a public service based on the principles of justice and beneficence. So how could people be left to fend for themselves in these harsh conditions? Dr. Jim O’Connell, founder of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, and a Harvard trained physician issued guidelines on temperature associated health risks to the homeless. The bottom line is that while water freezes at 32 degrees, human flesh is at risk for freezing at just 40 degrees. Often the greatest risk occurs when the ambient temperature is warm during the day and then drops drastically at night. From a business standpoint, a warming station could say they don’t have funds to pay for staff to be there during the day. They don’t have a food source there. Maybe they don’t have permission to keep the building owned by the Park and Rec Department open during the day. There are a hundred other reasons that they could come up with and some might be true. But the truth of it is, it doesn’t matter. These are people and they needed shelter. Could there have been a solution? A work-around?

The gravity of this current snow situation for the homeless is likely not to be understood for some time. But with each challenge must come insight and solutions to minimize risk the next time around. First, is the issue of the Code Blue designation. The Code Blue designation is issued by Lehigh County Emergency Management when temperatures dip below 32 degrees. The Code Blue status is supposed to be posted on the Lehigh County Emergency Management website but currently does not indicate a Code Blue listing. Today is a high of 26 and a low of 9, certainly we meet criteria. ‘Code Blue’  isn’t a searchable term on their website and it is difficult to find any information about what this designation really means. Anecdotally, I can tell you that local shelters loosen their admission criteria and put people any where they can as a temporary measure. The most current listing of Code Blue places available on the internet is from 2014 and basically contains a list of local shelters. Shouldn’t this designation allow for other buildings owned by the City to remain open as a public health measure? And why is the temperature cut off 32 degrees when data supports danger starting at a temperature of 40 degrees?

Second, those who are in the business of providing shelter as a public service should be held accountable for their actions. Many of these shelters and warming stations receive monetary support from citizens, government, grants etc. who expect that they are providing the service of warming and shelter.  You are accountable to your stakeholders. Is the city of Allentown responsible for sheltering these people or are they relieved of their responsibility because they funded another entity to provide this public service?  Take the example of our local hospitals. Healthcare workers slept in the hospital and shoveled on-ramps on 78 in order to get to work because the hospitals take their responsibility of being prepared for patients despite weather or any other natural disaster. The hospitals require it and the healthcare workers abide by it because of their moral responsibilities to their patients. Another example is the accountability of disaster preparedness where organizations accept risk for the greater good. Successful organizations balance between risk and preparedness with the ethical principles of justice and nonmalifecence. These preparedness documents should be well thought out and easily implemented. Just as in disaster preparedness, when running a winter shelter, one must be prepared for winter weather.
Finally, there is the humanistic aspect. In times of trial when human lives and dignity are on the line it is ALL of our responsibility to care for those in need.  If you’ve accepted the public commission to care for the most vulnerable, you can’t abandon that post in the worst of times. At the same time, if you haven’t accepted that post in an official matter you aren’t absolved of your moral responsibility. This weekend in Allentown that is exactly what happened. Although not bound by grants or funding, Zion Church opened their doors to those most in need of sheltering from danger, just as they did in 1777 when they “housed” the Liberty Bell, keeping it safe from the British during the Revolutionary War (www.libertybellchurch.org).  Let it be a lessoned learned; that true responsibility comes from within.

Gift giving.  Tis the season for the imagry of Christmas presents under a carefully decorated tree or eight stacked presents to represent the eight nights of Hanukkah. Having small children seems to make the season especially charming. But admittedly, sometimes this season can be challenging for people who work in the homeless community. The contrast between the haves and the have-nots is often stark and blinding.  All providers and advocates have to find that delicate balance in their lives between doing the work and going home to a life that is in such contrast to the life of our friends on the street.

We recently introduced a ‘vulnerable population curriculum’ to the PA students at DeSales. We talked about homelessness (of course!), global health, refugees, human trafficking and spent a lot of time challenging them to think about what it means to be ‘vulnerable’ and how that affects health.  During a series of reflection papers, a student exclaimed that he liked these activities but they were so depressing- who knew of all the things happening in the world. For a moment (or perhaps longer), he wished to live in the world where he eyes were still closed.

His comments though, really made me think.  How is it that there are people who chose jobs in which they take on the burdens of others. A friend who works in Oncology gets asked often – “how can you work in that office! It must be so depressing!”.  Many clinicians have occasional patients who have a story that will stop you in your tracks. Their story tends to haunt you for a few days before enough ‘regular stories from regular people’ wash away the traces of horror you felt a few days before.  But what about people who take on the horrors and traumatic experiences of many individuals at the same time. I think about people like Mother Theresa or Jack Prager ( who has been doing street medicine since the 70s in Calcutta, India) or Jim Withers (father of street medicine in the US).  The things they have seen and heard, the grief they have shared with their patients all while maintaining sanity, faith in humanity and a wicked sense of humor (especially Dr Prager!).  And somehow, seeming to find themselves in the midst of the chaos.

The word compassion derives from com- meaning ‘together’, and pati- meaning ‘to suffer’.  I often interview candidates for PA school admission who describe themselves as ‘compassionate’. When I ask what they mean by this, they usually answer that they are caring or empathetic. It isn’t a completely wrong answer but it isn’t completly right either.  There is a difference between feeling sad for someone and suffering with someone. And frankly, one is more exhausting than the other because it makes us vulnerable too. I think that much of the work we do in street medicine and with vitims of human traficking calls on providers to suffer with another person. And honestly, sometimes it isn’t easy. Often what is spoken about ones experiences have never been said to another soul.  It is a fragile truth that often can begin to free the speaker from the guilt and shame that comes with holding a secret for so long. I think some people, like Jack and Jim and many others, have been given the gift of suffering. An ability to see a world that has been so cruel to people but still resolve in the hope that exists for each them.  It is in these examples that we look to find the gift of suffering within ourselves. Each relationship is an opportunity to do more than just listen and leave, but to share, survive and hope with our friends.

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

Tonight, I was playing mommy referee mediating yet another squabble between by two daughters. They are 23 months apart and like most siblings love and hate each other with 150% effort.  While I am sure repeating myself over and over must sink into their brains somewhere, sometimes I bore myself with the repetition. After the one millionth melt down in the course of 45 minutes, I finally said “Girls! You are a mirror to each other! What one does, the other will also do! If you want to be treated nicely, be nice!” They kind of looked at me like I had three heads. But then started to smile, then giggle, then run off to play pretending to be each other’s mirror and see what they could make the other do in response.

It reminds me of a patient I saw last week for the first time. I am fairly new to one of our local nursing homes so I am sure the staff there hasn’t been notified for my love of homeless patients. That would be the reason for ‘ the warning ‘. I am sure the staff member meant it to be an act of comradery. Give the new girl a heads up. She went on to tell me that my new patient was homeless (followed by an eyeroll) and had AIDS (“of course”) and had the audacity to spend 20 minutes in the shower while she was waiting to start his treatments (sigh, huff, puff). “Good luck with that one!” she said. I thumbed through the 9 million un-useful pieces of paper that had accompanied the patient from the hospital and came across a psychiatric consult that stated the patient lacked the capacity to make his own decisions.  A rather big deal in the medical world that essentially means the patient lacks insight into consequences and can’t be trusted to make their own treatment decisions. It was also particularly relevant to this man since he had tried to sign out of the nursing home against medical advice earlier that day- something that is not allowed if you can’t make your own decisions. Trust me – that only added to his popularity.

I hung out with this patient for over an hour. We talked family, hobbies (a guitar player since age 12), his HIV mode of transmission (not IV drug use as the chart had stated), his medical history (he knew all of his providers names from his previous residence and their phone numbers), wishes and concerns. I asked him about the psychiatric assessment to which he responded “If you’re and asshole to me, I’m an asshole to you.” He went on to describe the interaction with the doctor and how he knew what to say to make ‘that dude disappear’. “It’s really not that hard to be left alone. People don’t want you and so you don’t want then nether.”

His interactions with me were far different than what had been described or documented in his medical chart. There are many reasons for this to have been and I don’t presume that it is all chalked up to my comfort talking about things that, for many providers, are uncomfortable. But I do think that we can become somewhat childish in our interactions. The patient throws up a barrier, then we throw up a barrier. Then the patient pushes our buttons, then we retreat from the interaction. And before you know it, this relationship is going nowhere. And the patient will soon be “non-compliant with a history of multiple no call/no shows”.

Why? Just look in the mirror.

~CF

We have been experiencing extremely cold temperatures over the past week, with the early mornings and evenings below 0 degrees. There is obvious risk of severe injury and death for our patients who choose to stay outside. We always attempt to meet them on their terms and respect the decisions they make, but first try to bring them in to safety. This was the goal when I arrived at Safe Harbor at 8:00AM- we needed to go to the camps by the river and try to get those folks to come in with us for a meal and a warm, safe place. The parking lot around back also serves as a meeting place for the guests to congregate but mostly smoke. After I pulled in, I got out of my truck I was greeted by one of the residence, “Hey, are we doing that homeless thing today?!?” The initial thoughts that rushed through my mind were, “What homeless thing,” and then, “Wait, aren’t you homeless (which of course he was)?” At that moment it occurred to me that the manner in which we carry out street rounds is so inclusive, that the area homeless are beginning to feel a part of it and are making it their own.

The way we perform street rounds varies from day to day based on the locations and the people we are going to visit. At times it’s better to have a small group- usually myself and at least 2 other guides. When we go out around Easton the mood is much different. Tyler, the Director of the large area shelter, Safe Harbor, is extremely well known. Almost all of the people we come across are either known to Tyler or know of Tyler. Because of this familiarity, when we travel around Easton my goal is to be more inclusive. Helping those most in need is difficult and requires full community involvement. Sometimes, the person in need feels alienated from the community. When the situation is right, we’ve found it to be extremely effective to bring the community with us to welcome them. When this happens, the community takes ownership over all of its members, and the previously alienated member feels less that way. There are times when we set out with 4 or 5 people on street rounds. As we visit various camps, we ask the homeless to join us on street rounds culminating in a trip to Safe Harbor for food, shelter, showers and even job assistance. Sometimes we return with 10-15 people. It is this approach that led this resident of Safe Harbor to feel, and rightfully so, that he too was an outreach worker and despite his current situation in life, he is still valuable enough to give back to those less fortunate.

When we set out this morning, I thought I was part of the street medicine program, but as we approached a tent with two very cold people sleeping inside and the same resident yelled from the outside, “We are the homeless posse here to bring you in!” I knew what group I was really working with that day. And we were much stronger than any medication in my backpack.

~BF

Whew.

Remember when you were in middle school and your parents sent you off to camp for two weeks for the first time? Personally, I dreaded that day. Two weeks seemed so long. And. let’s face it,  there were an endless number of spiders that could be encountered in 14 days. But off you went and when you returned, you were different. And suddenly, you had lived more in those 14 days and learned more about life, yourself, spiders, archery and basket weaving than you could ever have imagined. Multiply that by a gazillion, and that is what the first three months of full time street medicine in this household has been like.

As you may remember, Brett became full time street medicine on October 1, 2014 as a result of a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Health. The support and the rate at which the Program has been growing in 12 short weeks is baffling, even by my standards. At the start of the Program, there was a shelter based clinic (Safe Harbor- Easton, PA) and a soup kitchen based clinic (St. Paul’s- Allentown PA) in addition to the separate (but closely related) DeSales Free Clinic at the Allentown Rescue Mission.  In three months, there are now street rounds twice per week – one day in Allentown, one day in Easton, a new clinic at the 6th and Chew St Winter Shelter, involvement of medical students, internal medicine residents, development of a homelessness screening tool, ground work for the opening of new clinics in the Ecumenical Soup Kitchen (Allentown), Salvation Army Hospitality House (Allentown) and New Bethany Ministries (Bethlehem). Not to mention the training for the new Network wide electronic medical record, meeting quarterly requirements of the grant and endless other tasks. In addition, I and DeSales University have taken to a new project by opening a clinic at the Truth Home for Women (Bethlehem) which provides free medical care to women who are recovering from human/sex trafficking.

I have had some time to reflect on these last few months during a much needed break from my teaching responsibilities. However, all that time I envisioned playing board games with my kids and organizing closets were erased by the passing of my dear uncle, the hospitalization of our 7 month old son (who is back to blowing raspberries and trying endlessly get his toes into his mouth), the declining of my most favorite sassy lady- my 92 year old Nana and a slew of other unforeseen life events. In those wee hour moments while rocking a sick baby back to sleep, I get my clearest visions and thoughts.

Life itself is without protocol. I remember being a PA student desperately trying to grasp the concept of electrolyte replacement and management. I remember begging for a protocol. Yes, I know protocols are really just suggestions. Yes, I know we treat people and not number. Yes, I understand that every case is individual. BUT GIVE ME THE PROTOCOL. Mostly, I thought, so I don’t kill someone out of my own stupidity. I needed place to start. Homeless medicine is an amorphous area of medicine. Most people who start out in this field are drawn to the social justice of it all, the simplicity of the system. But they are nervous, scared even. It is so far outside of how we normally practice medicine. Think of a typical office visit- there are front office staff, there is a scheduled appointment, there are people to room the patient. You see the patient and practice within well defined (mostly) evidence based standards of care. You fill out a bill, maybe write out a prescription that will need a prior authorization. Which will then be denied requiring you to either spend an hour on the phone arguing or change the prescription. It may be a pain in the butt, but traditional medicine has structure. It has protocol.

As we are training new providers to volunteer, open clinics and screen patients, I am reminded that this new way of thinking about medicine can invoke a sense of agoraphobia. There are no walls. No documented peer-reviewed standards of care. No protocol. In fact, it is the very opposite of protocol. It is creative, sprawling, think-outside-the-boxy, just-because-its-never-been-done-doesn’t-mean-you-shouldn’ty. This is the origin of the (my) addiction to street medicine.

As I do every Friday, I was rounding at one of our local nursing homes after precepting the night before at the DeSales Free Clinic. Friday mornings like these are always particularly challenging for me as I am often struck not by the differences but by the similarities between the ‘underserved’ unsheltered/sheltered homeless and the ‘underserved’ elderly living out their days in a nursing home. Nursing homes are not all doom and gloom and depressed mental pictures of our loved ones wilting away just as caring for the homeless is not a fruitless effort bound for failure. There is actually a great deal of love taking place in both settings. Don’t believe me? On Friday, a long time patient in the nursing home suddenly took a turn for the worse. I frantically wrote orders for medications that I though would ease her transition out of this world. One hour and fifteen minutes later, my lovely patient left this world to another. She left so quickly that her family was not able to make it to her bedside in time. Instead, she was loved out of this world by a nurses aide and an activites assistant to the hymns of her childhood and recitations of her favorite passages from the Good Book. So often, we in medicine think that our only measure of success is cure. I solomnly object.

Last year, I saw a patient in the Free Clinic with one of my students. The student had done a great job seeing the patient, coming up with a reasonable plan and conveying it to me. The patient essentially had a terrible cold. No need for antibiotics or anything more than some OTC medications that we could provide. From my seat in the presentation area, I could see the patient out of the corner of my eye. He looked terrible. Not the “call an ambulance” terrible, but a weary-feverish-please-just-let-me-rest terrible. As we went into see the patient together, we realized he was in the emergency shelter which clears out no later than 8am. This man would wander the streets and try to find somewhere to rest until the shleter opened back up. Your daily goal of survival is rarely replaced with rest and recooperate. It turned out, this man had a car (eureka!). He also had a brother 1 hour north who was going to be away for the next week and had offered my patient the couch while he was away. The problem? The patient’s car needed antifreeze and he had no money.

As we returned to the waiting room, I asked my student to share a memory about being sick and the things that helped him feel better. Then i asked him to remeber how sick he felt and picture not eating or drinking and then walking around or sitting in 20 degree weather while the wind slaps your face as if to remind you of your worthlessness. Before we learned the patients social situation, we of course knew that we couldnt cure his cold. Most viruses are just a test of our patience since more of the things we give for comfort only work marginally well at best. But we were nonetheless ready to arm him with Mucinex, Robitussin, Motrin and anything else we thought would help. In reality, what he needed more, was rest. And the best way to get him rest, was to get him antifreeze. On the way home from clinic that night, I bought him two large containers of antifreeze and dropped them back off the next morning where a very greatful patient awaited and at last would get a good nights sleep.

In street medicine, as with the nursing homes, we cannot simply cure the root cause that landed our patients in ther current surroundings. It is the complex fabric of their lives and health that have to be carefully understood before real comfort -and perhaps cure – can be achieved. This can be a real challenge to newcomers to these areas of medicine. There is a potential for new providers to become frustrated and overwhelmed and run for the hills while wildly flapping their arms screaming about the unfairness of it all. What we find in street medicine is that often the cure comes from the comfort. The brokenness cannot be cured with pills. It can only be cured with comfort. Comfort doesnt’t take money, doesn’t take insurance (thank God) and doesn’t take a master’s degree. It actually takes something much more valuable. It takes tenacity mixed with vulnerability to go there with your patient. To a place that is raw and uncomfortable and can chalkenge you in ways you never thought possible. To a place where we celebrate the small victories and push on when set backs occur. In many ways, this is what our patients need more than anything else. Belief that they are actually worthy of something better than this.

“Sometimes it’s easy to walk by because we know we can’t change someone’s whole life in a single afternoon. But what we fail to realize is that simple kindness can go a long way toward encouraging someone who is stuck in a desolate place.” – Mike Yankoski