Volunteers learn while serving

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER --  Ben Bullock, an LSU Health Sciences Center medical student, conducts a TB test Thursday on Cristina Thomas at the New Orleans Mission. LSU medical students provide the clinic for the homeless on Thursdays.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Ben Bullock, an LSU Health Sciences Center medical student, conducts a TB test Thursday on Cristina Thomas at the New Orleans Mission. LSU medical students provide the clinic for the homeless on Thursdays.

LSU medical students hold clinic at shelters

LSU Health Sciences Center medical students gain real world experience with patients while providing a much-needed service by running a clinic twice a week at two homeless shelters in New Orleans.

Teamed up with a physician, the students see between 10 and 25 patients at the clinics, which usually last between two and four hours depending on available volunteer doctors. The clinics are open at the New Orleans Mission on Thursdays and the Ozanam Inn on Saturdays. Last year, more than 700 patients received care they would not have otherwise gotten.

Clinic director Bavana Ketha, a second-year medical student, said that there are more students wanting to volunteer, which requires a four-year commitment, than available spots.

Ketha said that the student-run homeless clinic, started in 1991, was one of the things that drew her to the LSUHSC program.

For first- and second-year students, the clinic provides a unique hands-on opportunity that they otherwise would not experience until their third and fourth year in medical school.

The program was only able to take 40 of the 80 first-year students who applied, Ketha said.

On Thursday at the New Orleans Mission, eight students took turns examining patients. The students performed the initial interview and basic physical exam before consulting with Dr. Cathi Fontenot, associate dean of medical alumni affairs and development for LSUHSC.

One woman came in with pain in her abdomen. Another man had a growth on his side that had become infected.

Fontenot said that the most common ailments include hypertension, diabetes-related issues, respiratory infections and skin diseases. The clinic also performs tuberculosis skin tests, which are often a requirement to stay overnight at shelters.

After Fontenot questioned the students about their analyses, she went in to see the patients along with the students for a final diagnosis and to jointly develop a treatment plan. Fontenot said that the patients enjoy the social interaction and often talk at length to the students about their medical problems. Sometimes after they’ve been in the exam room for 15 or 20 minutes, Fontenot said she checks in to help get the necessary information.

The patients do a lot of the teaching, Fontenot said.

For the students, it’s as much about learning how to interact, interview and listen to patients as it is about the medical knowledge, Fontenot said.

Christina Thomas, who lives at the shelter with her husband, waited Thursday to get her blood pressure medicine refilled.

“They are a blessing,” Thomas said. “I don’t have insurance, and I have been able to assess my medical needs through the program.” She said the students are always very patient and helpful, and she is equally patient as the students learn.

First-year student Ben Bullock said that it’s “refreshing they are so forgiving,” as the students try things like TB tests for the first time on a real patient. Bullock said he was eager for the chance to get out of the classroom, as well as for the opportunity to help others in a way that also benefits his career.

Ketha said that one of the biggest challenges is not being able to provide long-term care, but for that, and anything that the clinic cannot provide, they refer patients to other facilities.

With the clinics run entirely by volunteers, the biggest expense is medication, Ketha said, and the clinic relies heavily on fundraising.

The program recently won funding during the Super Service Challenge in the run up to the Super Bowl.

They were awarded $2,000 by the Brees Dream Foundation and Companies with a Mission, and another $2,000 for being voted the people’s choice award winner.

Most of the money will go to covering medication, Ketha said. Fontenot said the clinic does not prescribe narcotics.

First-year student Charles Cefalu said the volunteer experience gives him empathy, as well as valuable early exposure. “It gets the jitters out for patient/doctor interaction, and I’m serving people who don’t have the things we take for granted,” Cefalu said.

Much of what he sees is preventable, and the lack of education about preventative care can be disheartening, Cefalu said.

Thomas said that because of Fontenot’s guidance and making changes in her diet, she was able to lower her blood pressure.

“The resources she directed me to worked wonders,” she said.

Thomas said that her husband is in a work program, and they are saving money. Within about four months, Thomas said she and her husband plan to be able to move out on their own.

“This is a stepping stone for us,” Thomas said.