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Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009 11:47 pm

Homeless clinic treats more than just illness

Free exams break down barriers

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Sienna Quick of Springfield has her blood pressure tested during a free clinic at Springfield’s homeless overflow shelter, where she is a resident.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

With a cheery grin that belies her housing situation, Springfield native Sienna Quick chats casually with the medical student checking her blood pressure.

“It’s usually lower than that,” a surprised Quick says of her diastolic pressure. As she approaches a tape measure fastened to the wall temporarily with duct tape, Quick confidently predicts her height – nailing it exactly at five feet and one-half inch.

Quick is a resident of the Springfield Overflow Shelter, an emergency overnight homeless shelter open from November to April each year. The facility hosted a free health clinic Dec. 9, providing checkups and other basic services for Springfield’s homeless and uninsured populations, and Quick was among the first to be examined.

“I’m getting the care I need right now,” Quick said. “I’m trying to get over a cold or flu or whatever you want to call it.”

Staffed completely by volunteer physicians, nurses and medical students, the clinic served about 100 people, providing over-the-counter medicines and tests for cholesterol, oral cancer, HIV, blood pressure and glucose levels, vision and more. An earlier clinic held in March was the first of many clinics to come, says organizer Tracey Smith.

An advanced practice nurse at SIU School of Medicine, Smith says the clinics help address elevated health risks faced by the homeless, including heart disease, diabetes and more.

“Any chronic disease tends to be poorly managed,” Smith says “There’s not a lot of medication adherence, especially in diabetes, so we can see a lot of long-term side effects from the diabetic state. They also face a lot of acute problems like respiratory infection because of the environment they are forced to live in. It can really develop into something more severe.”

Those dealing with mental illness have it especially difficult, Smith says.

“A lot of our clients aren’t able to get their psychiatric medications filled or get routine psychiatric care,” Smith says. “A lot of them are hesitant to share that information with health care providers, just like in the general population. But here, there’s a greater risk (posed by mental illness) because there isn’t as much access to treatment for them.”

But Smith says the clinics are about more than just a quick checkup; they are a way to break down barriers faced by the homeless community. Those barriers can be obvious – like the prohibitive cost of health care or the lack of transportation – but they can also be less apparent, Smith points out.

“They’re not always secure with systems, be it the health care system, the judicial system, government or whatever,” she says. “Many of them have not had great experiences with these systems, and so by us coming to them in their home, I think we help to decrease some of that barrier, that fear and mistrust. I think it’s a small step, but it’s a step that needs to be taken.”

The homeless also face another barrier to proper health care — one that Smith says many people take for granted.

“You know how we look at our clock and keep track of time and have appointments set up?” she posits. “Their lives are very chaotic. Survival can be chaotic, and when your life is chaos, appointments and times are barriers. It’s a barrier that we often forget about, because we think, ‘Why can’t people show up for their appointments?’ When life is chaos, appointments aren’t the number one priority on your list of things to do, so we need to be aware of that and respect clients’ needs.”

Smith says the clinics are less of a service and more of a social responsibility.

“I think that if we don’t take care of our clients that can’t make it to the doctor’s office, we’re not doing justice.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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