Grabbing stocked backpacks full of supplies and medications, a small team
of people followed a dirt trail down the embankment of St. John's
River. The river was empty, but the banks were full, lined with tents
and makeshift shelters of the dozens of people living in a large homeless
encampment. The team stopped and met with each and every person on this
day, offering anything that they had – and they had a lot –
food, water, hygiene supplies, first aid, medicine, preventive screenings,
disease information, and referrals to social services. But the most important
thing they brought that day was humanity and a desire to reach those who
may be living outside of the system many of us take for granted.
Clearly, this is no ordinary group helping out on this day. These are the
extraordinary men and women of Kaweah Delta Street Medicine, a committed
group of attending physicians, residents, and community volunteers who
travel the roads of Tulare County, helping its most vulnerable community.
The program is under the direction of Dr. Omar Guzman, Director of Undergraduate
Medical Education at Kaweah Delta, but he is quick to credit his team,
Dr. Chadi Kahwaji and Krystal Nourie as indispensable to the program’s
success. Kaweah Delta Street Medicine is the first program of its kind
in the Central Valley. "This all started with a question: How do
we educate our physicians in training on the community they serve?"
Dr. Guzman said. "How do we serve those most in need?"
To answer this question, Dr. Guzman started taking medical students out
into the community in a van loaded with supplies. Their goal was simple:
bring medical care to the people who need it most. Bring a mobile pharmacy,
offer wound care, go to where the people are and serve them where they live.
The Street Medicine Program partners with local agencies such as Kings/Tulare
Homeless Alliance and Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency to
offer holistic support to the homeless patients they meet. Having worked
extensively with the homeless population, such local agencies are a natural
liaison to that community and provide an important key to the program’s
success. "The medicine part is simple. It’s breaking down the
human part that is difficult. Humanizing folks again who are marginalized
and outside of the system is the challenge," Dr. Guzman said.
The Street Medicine program is one of many in the US with the goal of serving
the people with little to no access to health care: undocumented workers,
uninsured individuals, and the homeless population. All care is provided
free of charge and delivered on-site. Like-minded programs across the
country operate with the belief that street medicine is the first step
in achieving higher levels of medical health, mental health, and social
care through coordinated and collaborative outreach. Dr. Guzman believes
this as well.
"With all of these providers, our partners and volunteers coming together
to make an impact, the opportunity to grow and do more will only increase,"
Dr. Guzman said.
Case in point: in late May and early June 2020, the Street Medicine team
visited homeless encampments to offer free COVID-19 testing, making sure
that no corner of the community is forgotten.
When reflecting on his own journey that led him to this point, Dr. Guzman
said, "When I left high school and moved away for college, I knew
that I wanted to come home someday to Visalia and help the community in
some way. My parents always told me that your community is your family,
so I wanted to come back and serve those most in need, the underserved,
and be there 24/7. I know that I’ve reached that place now."