Taking stethoscopes to the streets

By Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

North Texas Catholic

July 14, 2017

Medical  student Nicola Harris speaks with Ken Reilly about his medical history at a clinic started by the Catholic Medical Association of Students. (NTC photo/Ben Torres) 

FORT WORTH — Mike Byers keeps his nose buried in books about anatomy and osteopathic techniques.

“There so much reading to do and facts to learn, it’s easy to lose perspective,” said the second year medical student.

A recently launched outreach clinic to the homeless, organized by the Catholic Medical Association of Students at the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine (TCOM), is giving future doctors like Byers an added dimension to their education.

“It’s a really good reminder that I’m learning all these facts to help people,” said the University of Dallas graduate. “I think it will help me become a better doctor. It’s always great to put knowledge into practice and make those connections.”

Byers is part of a group that sets up a mini medical clinic inside the St. Patrick Cathedral annex on the first Monday of each month.

Held in collaboration with Catholic Charities’ Street Outreach Services (SOS), the student-led project provides Fort Worth’s growing homeless population with needed screening tests for high blood pressure, diabetes, and other conditions. TCOM faculty member Michael Shaffer, DO, supervises patient care.

“This is probably one of the best learning experiences they can gain,” said the family practice and sports medicine physician. “We can teach them all they need to know about medicine, but interacting with human beings allows them to share what it means to be a Christian or Catholic. This is that extension of pure love we can’t teach them in a classroom.”

After recording basic medical information about height, weight, blood pressure, and prescriptions used, the medical students interview patients about any health concerns they have. The students then present the case in a methodical, logical way to Dr. Shaffer or his wife, Kellie Flood-Shaffer, M.D., an obstetrician-gynecologist who also volunteers her services at the clinic.

“We ask the students a few more questions then go in and see the patients with them to make sure they didn’t miss anything,” explained Dr. Flood-Shaffer. “Our main goal is to provide service to the homeless while training and teaching students how to talk to patients, how to do a basic examination, and how to send them for long-term care if they need it.”

Stomach and intestinal disorders, as well as dental issues, are common health complaints of people who live on the street or frequent night shelters. And because they’re out in the Texas sun so much, skin problems often arise.

“They are going to meet all kinds of people from different walks of life here,” Dr. Shaffer suggested. “This is real world experience.”

Medical student Joyce Chemplanikal, center, listens to Steven Reagan speak about his medical history at a medical clinic for clients of Catholic Charities. (NTC photo/Ben Torres)

The dozen or more patients who took advantage of the mini clinic May 1 were grateful to discuss their medical concerns with someone. Many discovered the new program while visiting the Christ Before Us Street Outreach Ministry hosted by St. Patrick Cathedral parishioners every Monday evening. While homeless individuals wait to meet with Catholic Charities SOS workers, cathedral volunteers offer them a buffet table featuring healthy foods, cold water bottles, coffee, and tea. They receive “to-go” snack packs and hygiene kits and can get a free haircut or take a donated book from the annex library.

Rita (not her real name) comes to the cathedral annex every week to socialize, borrow a book, or grab a quick slice of cake. The 53-year-old lived in the Presbyterian Night Shelter for two years before Catholic Charities and the Salvation Army found her affordable housing. Knowing there’s a place to go for free medical advice once a month adds another layer of comfort to her life.

“People in our community need assistance and compassion,” said the Catholic who attends Mass at St. Rita Church. “They need people to tell them how to live better.”

Medical students can learn a lot from the homeless, she continued.

“I’m glad they’re going to see people who are on the front line of poverty. There are a lot of different medical situations that come up and it’ll be good for their future careers.”

Organizers have received only positive feedback from patients treated at the mini medical clinic. Demand is expected to grow as the area’s homeless become more familiar with the free service.

“I think the homeless are surprised and excited to have the opportunity to talk with someone about how they feel,” observed Dr. Shaffer, a St. Frances Cabrini parishioner. “Once they get in the habit of seeing us here on the first Monday of every month, I think we’ll see more people. It’s one of those ‘if you build it, they will come’ things.”

Making small talk with patients while taking their blood pressure comes naturally to Aalyssa Wilson. As a University of Texas undergraduate, she traveled to Honduras with Global Medical Brigades and provided care to almost 900 villagers.

Volunteering at the downtown Fort Worth mini clinic with other medical students is one way of helping the less fortunate closer to home.

“I want to use my skills and what I’ve learned to do something meaningful for my community,” said the Catholic medical student from Houston. 

Right now that means screening the homeless for illness or helping them find needed resources. And there’s something else Wilson is eager to do.

“I like praying with patients if they are feeling down one day,” Wilson added. “I’ve been able to do that in the past and it’s great.” 

FORT WORTH — Mike Byers keeps his nose buried in books about anatomy and osteopathic techniques. “There so much reading to do and facts to learn, it’s easy to lose perspective,” said the second year medical student.

Published (until 7/14/2025)