A dose of compassion
Women of Means brings free medical care to homeless women in the Boston area
Q. You are one of 10 Americans recently honored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation with a Community Health Leaders Award for your work with Women of Means, the network of volunteer physicians providing free medical care to homeless women in the Boston area. What inspired you to create this team?
A. I was medical director of Boston Healthcare for the Homeless. They were probably one of the most generously funded and resource-rich homeless programs in the country. And here we are in Boston with some of the wealthiest and resource-rich medical institutions in the world and yet the women that I was taking care of in the shelters did not have their voices heard.
Q. Why not?
A. It’s really difficult to connect with the health care system. We have women who are in direct need of medical services, who are desperate, hungry, fearful, have mental illnesses, they’re elderly, or single women running families — all of these vulnerable populations — and they cannot get their voices heard in the health care system without an extraordinary amount of extra help.
Q. How is connecting to the health care system different for a homeless woman?
A. Suppose you wake up in the morning with a sore throat and you think you have strep. It’s reflexive for you and I to think, “Oh, I better call my doctor.’’ So you get an appointment, you go there, get seen, get a prescription filled, and within 24 hours you’re feeling better. But if you are a homeless woman living in a shelter or running away from a batterer, you might not wake up in a place that is safe or healthy. You certainly won’t have access to a phone, you might not have a primary care doctor, you might not have insurance, you might not speak their language, you don’t have transportation. More importantly, in the world we live in, you don’t feel worthy of getting care.
Q. You don’t have a clinic, so how do you help the women?
A. We go into as many as 12 shelters in the Boston area on almost a daily basis. We provide free medical care and over-the-counter medical supplies.
Q. How do you win their trust?
A. I offer them validation and unconditional love and acceptance and understanding. Now that we’re 10 years old, we have on the staff of all the Boston hospitals people who came through our [educational] program as medical students and residents. If a woman comes in and she has a host of illnesses or problems, we can say, “We know a really nice doctor at Brigham and Women’s [for example] and she’s been to [the shelter] Rosie’s Place and knows what it’s like. Let me make an appointment with her for you. We’ll have someone take you to that first appointment so you don’t get lost.’’ The big irony is we are providing concierge care for homeless women, and we don’t charge a dime.
Interview was condensed and edited.
Elizabeth Cooney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.