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Middletown Brings Health and Recreation Services to Homeless

For second-year D.O. candidate Rebecca Hellmann, what started as an experiment to put herself in the shoes of the homeless turned into a biweekly community service activity for Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine-Middletown students.

May 19, 2016
From left to right: D.O. candidates Noah Pirozzi, Anthony Bonzagni, David Klein, Yee Tchao, Leighann Cornacchio, with Prof. Angela Cavanna, D.O. (center)
From left to right: D.O. candidates Noah Pirozzi, Anthony Bonzagni, David Klein, Yee Tchao, Leighann Cornacchio, with Prof. Angela Cavanna, D.O. (center)

“This population tends to be relatively transient, and the medical marketplace, while free, isn't designed for people on the move,” she explains. “That population gets discouraged easy, and is far busier trying to secure a roof over their head for the night or a location for their next meal rather than trying to subscribe to health insurance. It’s a hole in the system,” she says.

So Rebecca set out to organize a solution to this problem. Every other month, a group of her second-year peers come to HONORehg (Helping Others Needing Our Resources - formerly Emergency Housing Group), a long-term homeless shelter—different than the Warming Station—located in Middletown, NY, to speak candidly and informally to the residents about the importance of health, nutrition, and wellness—and gaining access to healthcare. “Our mission, in alignment with TouroCOM’s, is to bring early health intervention and access to those in need,” says Rebecca. “By creating a program where we come to them, we are able to serve as the bridge between the underserved and primary care by connecting them with free clinics in the Middletown area.”

Every visit is different, so the residents of the homeless shelter get something new each time. For about an hour and a half, the four or five students may lead a counseling session on healthy living, may conduct blood pressure or eye exams, and/or may teach them exercise regiments to relieve pain. They organize classes on nutrition, exercise, and smoking cessation.  The students are supervised by volunteer faculty members Dr. Martin Torrents, Dr. Angela Cavanna, Dr. Tara Sobel, and Dr. Stephanie Zeszutek—“who have been huge supporters of our student-run programs,” says Rebecca.

After every visit, the students provide follow-up information, which includes contact information for six partner clinics that have offered to treat HONORehg residents for free. Recently, Rebecca and her peers are also in the process of introducing other projects, too, such as afternoon sports with the children, free yoga classes for the adults, and a running/walking group with donated sneakers.

“Walking through that door, and volunteering with HONOR, has been one of the best decisions that I could have made in medical school,” said Nickolas Meier, a second-year medical student. “It taught me more than a book or class ever could about building relationships outside of my comfort zone.  It taught me ways to build trust with people who were very skeptical of me because of my title. And it also helped me see people for people rather than labeling them based on the hardships that they faced.”

“The first time I went, we had just learned about a hypercoagulation disease, factor V leiden, in class,” recounts Nitin Gupta. “Then, at HONOR, while checking vitals, I met this patient who had the strangest blood pressure measurements and asked her if she had any preexisting conditions. Coincidentally, she had factor V Leiden. I’ll never forget it now!”

“The more time we spend there, the more we realize that prevention – and time – is key to everything,” explains Rebecca.

Rebecca, herself, has been a longtime volunteer at homeless shelters. “I’ve lived in a couple of different cities, and this was just always something I did, always the activity,” she says. In every city she’s lived in, she’s found a homeless shelter to volunteer in: in Boston, her hometown; St. Louis, while earning her undergraduate degree; in Florida, where she lived after graduating; back in Boston, where she returned; in Austin, Texas, where she lived for a while; and now here, in Middletown.

“The residents [of the homeless shelter] in Boston actually convinced me to go to medical school – they’d always have random medical questions and I’d always try to get them answered,” recounts Rebecca, who would often ask her parents, both of who are medical professionals, for answers. Once, one of the residents had a seizure, and Rebecca had to step in. “Every single day after that, for two years, they asked me if I’d applied yet. And now, here I am!”

"We are extremely proud of our students’ volunteer efforts throughout the Hudson Valley,” said Dean Steier.

Read about the TouroCOM-Middletown Health Fair recently conducted at HONORehg.