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October 12, 2012

Student Street Clinic Helps Homeless

by Mike O'Sullivan

Medical students in California are getting real-world experience by helping the homeless on the streets of Los Angeles.  They are filling gaps in the health-care system while learning about their future profession.

The patients sit on folding chairs along the sidewalk in Hollywood, as students unload supplies and medical records from a truck.  They are creating a makeshift clinic on the street.

The first stage is triage, assessing the needs of poor and homeless at this once-a-week mobile clinic.  It is run by students from the University of California, Los Angeles, who operate similar clinics in different communities on other nights.

They provide medicine and offer clean socks and reading glasses to those who need them.  They bandage injuries and monitor vital signs.

Another charity offers nutritious meals to the patients.  Students in social work and law also come to offer assistance, getting long-term help from the government or private agencies for those people who qualify.

Patient Charles Brownridge comes here every week, as much for companionship as health care. “I like the atmosphere, the food, and they give pretty good service.  They are training, sort of like rookies doing an apprenticeship.  And it is fun to be around youngsters.  It is a nice atmosphere.”

Physician Walter Coppenrath helped start this street clinic 12 years ago when he was a medical student.  He now teaches at UCLA and sees patients at a nearby medical center.  He says this mobile care is crucial for this population.

“Small infections on your foot might be able to be handled by just changing your socks, but when you [are not] able to wash in a bath or change your socks," said Coppenrath. "They can actually lead to limb-threatening infections.”

The care is given to those who do not get help in other places, says medical student Steffanie Becerra. “They see us as their only point of care within the medical system where they can get their medications filled, a lot of people with hypertension or diabetes who really have no other choice but to come here because they just can not afford the medications elsewhere,” she explained.

The mobile clinic helps both patients and students, says undergraduate Kevin Norris, who plans to become a doctor.

“We really treat them as individuals deserving of respect because so many of the homeless people here in Los Angeles are really just looked down upon and largely ignored by much of the population,” Norris stated.

He says that once a week these people get the attention and the care they deserve, and the volunteer work helps him understand his future role as a physician.