Toting a large backpack stuffed with medical supplies, volunteers turned on flashlights as they headed into the opening of a concrete drainage tunnel near the intersection of Interstate 10 and DeZavala Road. They approached a full-size bed where a woman lay under several blankets, writhing in pain.
“Can you tell me what you are feeling?” asked first-year medical student Kaleigh Longcrier as she kneeled at her side. The woman, 27-year-old Anna, warmed up to Longcrier’s gentle questioning. She said pressure around her abdomen was causing extreme pain throughout her body. She had been staying in the tunnel for several days with her partner, Justin, who said she struggled to get out of bed.
“She hasn’t left there at all in two days,” he said.
Longcrier and her partner, Hailey Gaskamp, are members of San Antonio Street Medicine, a volunteer student organization at the University of the Incarnate Word School of Osteopathic Medicine (UIWSOM) providing basic medical care to San Antonio’s homeless residents.
Last Thursday, 35 medical students set out with 12 teams of volunteers for the Point in Time (PIT) count, an annual tally of homeless people without shelter or who are living in emergency facilities, transitional housing, or safe havens on a single night. It was the first time the local PIT count included volunteers providing basic medical care.
First-year medical students at UIW get their emergency medical technician (EMT) certification, so they can provide basic medical care such as dressing wounds and taking vitals, said Dr. Hans Bruntmyer, assistant professor at UIWSOM, and faculty adviser for the San Antonio Street Medicine volunteers.
Bruntmyer founded the street medicine program when the medical school opened in summer 2017. He also started the school’s mobile osteopathic medicine clinic, which sets up at locations throughout the city to educate and provide basic medical care to the medically underserved. It didn’t take long for the street medicine programs to gain traction, and now more than 50 students volunteer to provide medical services to people in need.
“Here at this school, our mission is to serve the underprivileged and marginalized, just like the mission of the nuns that came over in the [late 1800s],” Bruntmyer said, referring to the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, who arrived in 1869 and soon after established the city’s first hospital – the Santa Rosa Infirmary – to care for victims of a cholera epidemic.
“I think [the school] attracts people who have that same heart,” he said. “They want to do things to really help people, not just sit around and talk about it.”
Gaskamp, a second-year medical student and certified EMT, took the lead on performing a basic physical examination on Anna, looking for the origin of her pain.
“Her belly was fine, and there was no distension, but there was tenderness in her [lower abdomen], and she is really warm,” Gaskamp said. “It could be her appendix or an ectopic pregnancy causing pain, so that is the only big concern.”
During the more than 30-minute patient consultation, the medical students took turns exiting the drainage tunnel to call Bruntmyer, who was on standby to field questions or concerns the students had about patients’ symptoms to ensure proper care.
“If there are any wounds present, or they come across a person whose symptoms are complicated, they are instructed to call me,” Bruntmyer said.
Because Anna was not interested in going to the hospital to be evaluated, the students instructed her to stay hydrated, keep an eye on her fever, and – if the pain got worse – go to the emergency room.
“If we had come across someone in need of immediate medical attention or an emergency, we would immediately call 9-1-1 to get that person help,” Gaskamp said.
The PIT count was the first time the San Antonio Street Medicine volunteers went into the field to provide medical services to homeless people throughout the city. Bruntmyer is working with Haven for Hope, the city’s homeless and assistance shelter, to coordinate having an EMT join Haven’s outreach efforts and provide care.
On Wednesday, Bruntmyer joined Ron Brown, Haven for Hope’s outreach manager, as he traveled the city educating homeless people about services offered at the shelter, hoping to get them off the streets.
“There are people out there who don’t have food or clothes. They are strangers because no one wants to be around them,” Bruntmyer said. “As doctors, our ultimate goal is to care for people in the community. We have to treat all people the same whether they are a [basketball star] or a person living in a drainage ditch.”