Caring for the footweary homeless

By Beth Haysom

Peters

Sarah Peters massages a client’s feet at Our Place

It’s Tuesday morning at Victoria’s Our Place sanctuary for street people, and Island Medical Program student Sarah Peters gently washes, massages and salves a woman’s life-worn and needle-punctured feet that are resting in her lap.

Our Place—now in temporary quarters on Johnson Street—is a combination of the former Open Door and Upper Room that provides a haven for the homeless, street-weary, drug addicted and those seeking relief from loneliness or the torment of mental illness.

Peters is giving weekly foot therapy sessions there as part of her second-year Doctor, Patient and Society Program, a requisite course for future doctors, now studying medicine on Vancouver Island through a collaboration of the University of Victoria and the University of British Columbia Faculty of Medicine. Students may choose an independent project as part of the program’s community service learning.

Peters’ pedicure corner—just two plastic chairs, a garbage bag-lined washbowl filled with hot water and Epsom salts, soft towels, peppermint foot cream and dusting powder, and spare fresh socks—is a peaceful oasis amid the usual breakfast-time hubbub, TV sports/news chatter and pool table clicks, shouts and laughter.

She applies fresh band-aids, chats quietly and non-judgmentally discusses care of the needle wounds. The woman, totally relaxed by the comforting foot treatment, falls into a deep sleep. Bliss for once that didn’t come from a syringe or a bottle.

“I do seem to have a soporific effect on people,” says Peters, cheerfully greeting familiar faces as she crosses the crowded room to refill her bowl for the next person. Peters has become extremely popular since she started doing foot treatments in October. Her pedicure sign-up sheet fills up as soon as she walks in the door.

“It’s awesome,” says Eddie Golko, rolling up his jeans for his foot treatment. “Being homeless, you feel like a bum, not worthy. Being pampered, important enough to be taken care of, that makes me feel like a somebody again, like I’m still human.”
“I’m getting to know people, hearing their stories and finding out why they are where they are,” says Peters. “I was surprised, many were just ordinary people leading everyday lives when something happened, or a series of events led them into the cycle of addiction, poverty and homelessness.”

Peters believes this experience will prove valuable in her future medical career. “I’m beginning to understand the impact of homelessness and the struggles people have with mental illness and addictions. It’s huge,” she says.

Such knowledge and understanding is exactly what the directors of the Doctor, Patient and Society curriculum are hoping to achieve through the one half-day-a-week course taught during the first two years of medical studies.

The course, developed in Vancouver in 1998 as part of the UBC MD undergraduate program, continuously evolves in its goal to give students an understanding of the realities of practising medicine within a context of social accountability. It addresses the doctor/patient relationship and professional responsibilities in a diverse socio-cultural milieu.

Guest lecturers from all walks of life and tutor-led discussions help students address issues that they are likely to encounter in medical practice such as abortion, drug addiction, Aboriginal health care issues, ethics and the health effects of poverty and homelessness. Students are encouraged to do independent follow up and research into their own areas of interest.

“The practical community service component that Sarah has chosen is an ideal way to come to grips with the harsh health realities for people coping with homelessness,” says Dr. John Anderson, Doctor, Patient and Society course director for the Island Medical Program. “She is learning a great deal about others and herself and is also providing an enormous service for the Our Place community.”

“No kidding,” says Sandy Bell, an Our Place outreach worker. “I can’t tell you how much it means to have Sarah here.” Many of the homeless suffer from “street feet,” which, Bell explains, are really sore feet, blistered and damaged from walking around all day with no means to change socks and shoes or care for their feet.

Peters, a former Canadian cross-country ski champion who has now taken up marathon running as an antidote to the demands of a medical degree, understands what it means to put your best foot forward.

“Of course it would be wonderful for some of these people to give up drugs and get a new life off the street …but that’s the big picture. If what I do helps people to feel better about themselves, then maybe that’s a first step for them,” she says.

   
 
 
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