Posts Tagged ‘vulnerable populations’

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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Laura, how come you never asked me about Islam?”

I smiled at him. I said because your religion isn’t a factor for me, no one’s deserves to be homeless, especially homeless and blind.

He says to me, “I have been thinking to myself, why is this white Christian woman helping a Muslim black man” he laughs. He then lowers his head and says, “when I came to America, America was asleep. It was a beautiful country, then 9/11 happened and it became so hard for me. ” We sat in silence for less than a minute he turns to me, “Thank you, you are a great communicator and I don’t know how I would ever get here myself. God bless you. ”

Our journey together is not going to be an easy one, we are making small steps every week. Until you have become homeless or ever tried to assist the homeless you will never truly appreciate simple things such as making an appointment with a specialist, getting a pair of glasses, getting unemployment, applying for an apartment….for these people it takes months to obtain any of this. The average individual simply makes a phone call…applies online…gets the information mailed to their house…where does a homeless individual get their mail? What phone number will be called? Who has an email address?

As a nurse I don’t think I have ever felt like such a patient advocate as I do right now in my current career

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.

 

 

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.

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.

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.

In the Spring of 2013, Brett came across a conference being held in Washington, DC a few weeks later. We scrambled with our employees and our families to find coverage for the many hats we wear and off we went to the National HealthCare for the Homeless Council conference.  I have been to many, many educational conferences in my professional career and I can say that up until that point, none of them would be described as life changing.  Prior to our attendance, we had been running the DeSales Free Clinic since 2007 but had not really met other people who were doing the same things. Two things happened at that conference that changed the trajectory of our lives.

First, we were able to see that what we had created at the DeSales Free Clinic was as comprehensive and well thought out as many of the programs who were presenting their healthcare models at the conference. We always felt in our hearts that what we were offering was logical and right but we really had nothing to compare ourselves to. The second thing was that we were able to meet all of these people that were offering healthcare to their homeless population in ways we had never even thought of.

It was like a mental explosion.

I remember sitting at a restaurant with Brett after the conference was over.  We made a plan at lunch that day about what we wanted homelessness medicine to look like in our area. It was suddenly blinding that what we were doing was great but there was SO MUCH MORE that needed to be done. More people, more locations, more populations, more awareness. For both of us, a sudden and sharp vision (blessing)was born.

We wanted to start with developing a Street Medicine Program. We don’t really know how to do anything small and so considering starting something in a logical-one-step-at-a-time method is a nice theory but we know we’ll blow it right out of the gate. We knew that the biggest job was two fold- 1) convince important decision makers that the Lehigh Valley has a homelessness problem and 2) Get buy in for this never-heard-of-it-before type of medicine called Street Medicine.

A few months after the NHCHC conference, we attended the International Street Medicine Symposium in Boston, MA. Again- mind blown. The benchmark program- Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program- hosted the conference and I thought our heads were going to explode on the car ride home.

Today, Brett starts as a full time Street Medicine PA in the Lehigh Valley Health Network Street Medicine Program. He has worked tirelessly at the hospital and had more meetings in the last year than I think he ever thought possible. It’s funny but Brett is more of a do-er and less of a talk-er but he knew that he had to get people to see the vision as clearly as it lived in our heads. He met with grants people, finance people, security people, mechanics, community partners, HR, PR, IT, development, department chairs, managers…he learned about departments that we never knew even existed. And amazing people who were willing to help in any way that they could to give this idea legs.  Their eyes were opened and all of a sudden, they couldn’t imagine why we hadn’t thought of this sooner. He did lunch meetings, breakfast meetings, stand in the hall and chat meetings. The goal was to create an idea so big that once your ready to ‘go live’, it would be nearly impossible to stop. Their eyes were opened and all of a sudden, they couldn’t imagine why we hadn’t thought of this sooner.

Everyone has a different dream and I feel like very few get to wake up and do what is living in their heart all day. There is a pure joy that escapes unabashedly out of a person when they are doing what they love. Today is that day for Brett.  Dream big or don’t dream at all.

” It ain’t about the money you make, when a record gets sold, It’s about doin’ it for nothin’, ’cause it lives in your soul.”  – Eric Church