The new year is bringing a new milestone for the DeSales Free Clinic. The student-run, student-funded clinic, which provides free care to homeless men at the Allentown Rescue Mission, is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a gratitude dinner at the Allentown Brew Works on February 8 for volunteers, community partners, and other supporters.
The clinic, which officially opened on January 18, 2007, is a passion project for Corinne Feldman, assistant professor in the Physician Assistant Program, and her husband, Brett. They founded it while Brett was still a student in the PA program. “During my PA school education, we had to spend time in a homeless shelter providing free medical care and I loved it,” Feldman says. “When we moved here, I wanted to look for a place to continue that. Our dinner table is basically where it was born. We always joke that it was our first child.”
The clinic provides free primary and acute care, laboratory services, and medications to men at the rescue mission. All first and second year physician assistant graduate students are required to participate. Feldman calls it a transformative experience for them. “I think it's transformational because it takes what they think they know about themselves and it forces them to apply it to real patients who have real, complex social issues and real, complex medical issues,” she says. “They are forced to decide who they are going to be, how they are going to handle these difficult situations.”
Most schools do not require graduate students to participate in a free clinic setting. But DeSales is different. Feldman admits not every student embraces the idea, at least not right away. But in the end, she says those students often experience the most growth and become the clinic’s biggest advocates. “I think that's really powerful to force students onto someone else's turf, someone else's comfort zone. It's very clear that it's not about you the student.”
The clinic is one of the reasons Louise Marquino applied to the PA program. During her first year at the mission, she was pushed out of her comfort zone and had to ask questions that many students no doubt dread. Important questions about a patient’s history, any past drug use, or any behavioral or psychological issues. Questions that are awkward, uncomfortable, or, to some, offensive.
But after working with the men, those difficult questions became easier. “I became very comfortable asking these types of questions and learned to do it in a very respectful, professional manner, which is an important skill to have no matter what area of medicine or what population of patients you may be working with,” she says.
Working with the homeless has also taught Marquino to empathize with patients. “You never know exactly what a patient is up against,” she says. “In order to treat them and provide good care, you have to, as our clinic director Corinne Feldman told us, ‘suspend your reality’ and work to understand the reality they live in and understand what barriers they face so that you can work with them and actually provide realistic and manageable treatment plans given their unique situations.”
It’s estimated that about 10,000 people experience homelessness in the Lehigh Valley every year. Jim Byrnes, CEO of the Allentown Rescue Mission, calls the free clinic a medical lifeline for homeless men. “Without the quality care these volunteer doctors, faculty, and physician assistants provide, well over 1,000 men served by the mission would be deprived of the essential treatments they need,” he says. “No client is ever turned away and there’s never a charge. This clinic, without question, is one of our greatest blessings.”
The clinic isn’t just about providing free, quality care. It’s a learning experience that Feldman hopes will stay with students long after they leave DeSales. And she’s always happy to lend a helping hand to keep that spirit of giving alive. A former student, who works at a hospital in Philadelphia, recently contacted Feldman for advice. The alumna passes homeless people on her way into work, and because of her training at DeSales, felt she needed to do more. She came up with a resource guide to help the homeless and handed it out in her hospital’s emergency room. That, Feldman says, is what it’s all about.
Marquino also sees herself doing something more, working with a non-profit medical organization one day. She’ll carry with her the stories of the men she’s treated at the free clinic, like the one who received a dental implant to fill in a missing front tooth. “He was so happy to have a new smile he couldn’t stop grinning and he was so appreciative and just exuding confidence,” Marquino says. She’s been rooting for his and the other men’s success and will continue to do so long after she leaves DeSales.
Going forward, Feldman would like to see the clinic offer more extensive dental care and mental health services on site. She also envisions partnering with the PT Program at DeSales to offer ongoing physical therapy. Ten years ago, she considered the DeSales Free Clinic a crazy idea. Today, she sees the ripple effect that it has produced. Not only has it inspired students, it’s also inspired the Feldmans to start the Lehigh Valley Health Network Street Medicine Program, which takes health care to the homeless, whether it’s in encampments, under bridges, or in alleyways.
Feldman writes about lessons from the street on her blog Streetmedicinelehighvalley.org. She also oversees DeSales’ work at the Truth Home, a residential home for victims of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation.
Feldman credits students for their kindness and compassion and the University for its continued support and for staying true to its mission of Christian humanism. “We've had so much support from Father O'Connor [DeSales president], Dr. Walton [provost and vice president of academic affairs], and Father Leonard [dean of graduate education] to really challenge what we're capable of as a university,” she says. “To me, there is no better description of Christian humanism than the DeSales Free Clinic.”
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