CMU medical students practicing 'Street Medicine'

ISABELLA COUNTY (WJRT) - (01/08/19) - A group of Central Michigan University medical students are taking the idea of a doctor's house call to a new level.

"We tend to be a missing piece in a group of people that want to help this population," said fourth year medical student Samuel Jackson.

Through 'Street Medicine', a volunteer effort, the students and staff are using a large bus to reach people who likley don't see a doctor as often as they should. They're focusing on people who are homeless or are otherwise struggling to get by.

On the day we watched them in action the bus was parked at the William and Janet Strickler Nonprofit Center, a one-stop-shop for social services.

One of the four tenant organizations within the facility is the Isabella County Restoration House. It offers a rotating homeless shelter, among other services.

We met George and Christopher at the center. The young boys were there with their father, Christopher Wooster, and an older brother.

It took some convincing to get both of them on the bus-turned-doctor's-office.

Wooster wasn't surprised. "Seen their grandparents pass away, and all that, so it's hard for them, to believe in doctors," he said.

Bethany Brown, assistant director of Nursing at CMU's College of Health Professions, worked to build up trust with the boys.

"Want to sit here I can show you some cool stuff," Brown said as she got the boys onto an exam table.

Jackson said he sees the hesitation often. "A lot of time don't trust doctors," he said. "A lot of time they've been ignored or treated poorly by our system and by doctors."

From trust to transportation to cost Street Medicine is making it easier to reach people.

"Going to where people are, in their reality, under bridges, alleyways, in parks, and providing care," Jackson said.

Jackson modeled the local version of Street Medicine after a program in Pittsburgh. He was inspired to think outside the walls of a doctor's office after beginning his clinical rotation in Saginaw.

It's where he met a pregnant woman he'll never forget. "Who came with two garbage bags full of her stuff, to her first prenatal appointment. And so this issue is real and it's right here," Jackson said.

Jackson asked for help from CMU's College of Medicine, which made this bus available.

Donations have made the care completely free to the people who step on-board. The local health department and other agencies have also helped.

"Basically our bus is designed just like any doctor's office. So we can take blood pressures, we can listen to heart and lungs. We can look at glucose levels for diabetics," Jackson said.

One of the goals of Street Medicine is to connect patients with other medical care to meet ongoing needs.

They are working with iRide to provide some free transportation to get people to doctor appointments.

Other medical issues can be easily remedied.

Renee Benner, who volunteers at William and Janet Strickler Nonprofit Center, stepped on board the bus worried about her blood pressure.

"It's really sky high today," Benner said. "I ran out of blood pressure meds."

"I can feel the pulse throughout the whole body because it's racing so hard," Benner said.

As is often the case Jackson and Brown spend a lot of time listening.

"How can we help you get your blood pressure meds," Jackson asked Benner.

"It was on recall, and I had gotten an email telling me not to take it, it was on recall. Well, they never sent me an email saying it was off recall," Benner said.

"So, let's call the pharmacy," Brown replied. "Let's do it."

A quick call confirmed Benner's prescription was available again.

The Street Medicine volunteers take a different approach to providing conventional care.

"Coming here, dressing in more casual clothing, and just sitting there listening, helps build up our foundation again," Jackson said.

Ryan Griffus is the executive director of the ICRH. He said here they focus on getting people connected with the right resources on the pathway to self-sufficiency.

So when CMU called asking about if his non-profit was interested, he said it was a no-brainer.

"Pull up essentially in our parking lot and make that service available to meet our folks on their turf. They're talking my language with that one," Griffus said.

Griffus believes the people he works with are often misunderstood. "We all our one traumatic event, we're all maybe a missed paycheck or a lost job or one unfortunate relationship or what-have-you, away from being in the same situation," he said.

On the day we stopped by in late December, 31 people needed a place to stay at night, and around 300 people utilized the services offered there.

Those numbers might surprise people. Homelessness and poverty aren't always visible.

"In rural areas it's a little more invisible. A lot of people who are unsheltered in this area do live down a trail or in a more wooded area," Jackson said. "In cities it's sort of the opposite. They live with their lives fully exposed."

William Minnis, another patient who checked out the bus, has visited his doctor recently, but was concerned about his blood pressure.

"It's 130 over 70," Jackson told Minnis. "What does it normally run?"

Minnis wanted to know his numbers after a recent health scare.

He has a home and a job, but relies on bus transportation.

Minnis said the CMU medical students and staff were a missing piece. "This is the love of Christ, actually to come where you have people that come that actually need help," Minnis said.

Right now CMU medical students and staff stop at the William and Janet Strickler Nonprofit Center about once a month. Those who aren't on the bus spend time inside the shelter building relationships. They hope to get people to take what can be a scary step towards better health.

"We're just meeting them where they're at and seeing what changes they want to make, and helping be an advocate so they can do that," Jackson said.

The effort to provide care and build trust appears to be working.

"Do you think doctor's are still very scary," Brown asked George and Christopher. Both shook their heads 'no'.

"The most effective delivery in my opinion of making sure that there's no stone left unturned to get the people the help they need," Griffus said.

Up next Jackson has his sights set on bringing Street Medicine to Saginaw. As you may remember it's where he first met that pregnant woman who arrived with her belongings in two garbage bags, sparking his passion to serve the underserved.

For more information about the ICRH clicked on the 'Related Link' with this story.

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