By Jeff Carlton
That’s why the former backhoe operator from outside San Antonio recently found his way to St. Patrick Cathedral in downtown Fort Worth, lining up with other homeless individuals to receive a health checkup performed by medical student volunteers from UNT Health Science Center.
Newton, who struggles with arthritis, said he wanted a basic exam – but also the chance to connect with students who would provide a caring touch.
“The checkup gives you some peace of mind,” Newton said. “But it also means a lot that all these people came to help you out. They could be doing other things, but they are down here instead.”
Derek Christensen, a third-year student in UNTHSC’s Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine and a leader of the Catholic Medical Association of Students, said there’s no place he’d rather be than at the monthly clinic.
“It gives me a purpose, and it’s a reminder of why we study so much – 12 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week,” Christensen said. “There’s a larger purpose for all of this, so that we can be a source of guidance and a source of care.”
The monthly health clinic for homeless individuals in the Fort Worth area began in April 2017 as a collaboration between UNTHSC’s Catholic student group and Catholic Charities Fort Worth. Mary Mitchell and Matthew Wise, now fourth-year TCOM students, helped establish the clinic, which serves roughly 15-20 patients each month.
The Catholic Medical Association of Students at UNTHSC now has about 65 members, the vast majority of whom are medical students in TCOM. About a half-dozen take turns volunteering their time each month at the clinic.
As medical students, the volunteers can’t prescribe medications or perform procedures on their patients. But they can provide basic health exams that include checks on blood pressure, blood glucose, oxygen saturation and body mass index. Students utilize the osteopathic skills they learn in class to suggest exercises or stretches that may help with aches, pains or other ailments.
They also interview their patients to learn their chief health complaints and determine whether their medical needs are urgent. If patients at the homeless clinic are in need of immediate medical care, Catholic Charities Fort Worth finds ways to get them to an emergency room or other clinic immediately.
Alan Jack has been homeless for about seven years. He said a series of small heart attacks in recent years prompted him to come to the clinic.
“It makes you feel like there is someone who cares, that would volunteer their time to come out and interact with us,” he said. “Quite frankly, a lot of society would rather just discard us.”
Those kinds of meaningful interactions are what motivates third-year TCOM student Serene Selli to volunteer her time at the clinic.
“I realized I wanted to give back in a meaningful way,” Selli said. “The impact we have here is more than superficial.”
While service to others was also a motivation for Christensen, personal health struggles set him on a path that led to medical school at UNTHSC and a leadership role in the homeless clinic. He had open heart surgery as an infant and later was diagnosed with the genetic disorder neurofibromatosis, which can cause tumors to form on nerve tissue. He says he is one of the lucky few who requires observation but otherwise has suffered no ill effects.
Growing up, however, he spent more time than most children either in the hospital or visiting his family physician. Those experiences served as a blueprint for Christensen as to what type of physician he wants to become.
“I want to be a physician who listens, who cares and who is compassionate,” he said. “I don’t want to be the type that just checks a box or stares at a computer screen and fills out the electronic medical records. I want to take the time to know my patients.”