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Health Beat: Volunteers Treat Homeless

Drs. Robin Ellett, left, George Rosenberg and Maria Juelle volunteer at Bethlehem House clinic. (Photo provided by Catholic Charities)In the nine months since Bethlehem House homeless shelter began hosting a monthly free clinic, the doctors and nurses who staff it have seen – and treated – just about everything.

The most common problems are diabetes, hypertension, fungal infections in extremities, and a wide range of infectious diseases, said Dr. George Rosenberg.

“We see between 30 and 35 clients every time we do it,” he said. Some are new patients, some are ones who need ongoing care.

“We” is a team of six physicians who volunteer regularly on the second Saturday of each month as well as “a loyal group of nurses” and a cadre of non-medical personnel who act as administrative and support staff.

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Typically, there are three internists, one family physician and one doctor who is either a general surgeon or an orthopedic surgeon, besides Rosenberg, who is a radiologist, he said. Additionally, “we sometimes call and ask a specialist to come in” if there is an indication one is needed for a given patient.

Many of the patients are homeless men and women who live on the streets and subsist with help from soup kitchens and outreach programs. But many others are just temporarily down on their luck and without health insurance or other means to pay for health care.

“We don’t turn anybody away,” Rosenberg said. “We’re there to help those who need it.”

Patients are examined and treated on-site, he said. Some are advised to go to a doctor’s office for follow-up, and in rare instances, a person may require transfer to the hospital.

“If there are ear or sinus problems, we send them to Dr. (Adam) Shapiro’s office and he’ll take care of them at no charge. He has specialized equipment in his office,” Rosenberg said. Likewise, patients needing eye care are sent to an ophthalmologist where they can be examined with special equipment.

Very soon, there will also be free dental services. Longtime St. Thomas dentist Dr. Donald Pomerantz said he screened 22 patients at the most recent clinic, and found about 15 who need dental work.

“I have dentists lined up to do it,” Pomerantz said. A final decision is still to be made on where the service will take place, since it requires equipment not available at Bethlehem House.

His participation is a sample of the overwhelming response the medical community on St. Thomas has given to the effort.

First Lady Cecile de Jongh and Rosenberg developed the idea for the clinic, and worked with Catholic Charities to provide the site and reach potential patients. After months of planning, the clinic opened in October 2012.

“I don’t think that we knew what to expect,” Rosenberg said. Now “we’re getting to know the clientele. They are very appreciative. They are genuinely grateful.”

Originally, organizers worried about burn out with the volunteers. The plan was to rotate medical personnel. But Rosenberg said the work is so gratifying, the same volunteers keep returning. “I don’t think they want to give up their spots.”

He stressed that there are many people both within and outside the medical field who contribute to the effort, but couldn’t resist mentioning some of the most frequent volunteers: Drs. Ruth Watson, Robin Ellett, Gayann Hall, Lawrence Goldman and Maria Juelle, as well as nurse Joanne Sickler who runs the registration. “I’d be lost without her,” he said.

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