Physician assistant takes medicine to the homeless

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EASTON, Pa. (AP) — Brett Feldman will go wherever his patients need him.

He'll travel to Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton. You can find him in shelters, soup kitchens and tent encampments.

The 34-year-old physician assistant from Allentown is one of a few dozen practitioners of "street medicine," where U.S. medical professionals go to the streets to serve patients who are too poor or too reluctant to seek out the care they need.

"I love it," Feldman said.

As a physician assistant, he can treat patients and prescribe medicine as long has he remains under the supervision of a doctor. He started practicing street medicine about nine years ago. Before that he volunteered to help the homeless.

A moment of clarity came for him when he was starting out and helped a homeless person who told him, "I used to be somebody."

Feldman made it his goal to show that person and everyone who's homeless that being homeless doesn't mean you're no longer a person.

"That just always stuck with me, how dehumanizing homelessness is," Feldman said. "They have to sleep places where no one should have to sleep and eat things no one should have to eat."

St. John's Lutheran Church Pastor Susan Ruggles is helping to organize a rotating shelter for the 13 coldest weeks of the winter.

Once a week he holds a clinic at Safe Harbor shelter in Easton. It's one of six sites where he regularly administers care in the Lehigh Valley.

"He's made a huge difference for the residents and the homeless community here in Easton," said Safe Harbor Executive Director Anita Mitchell.

Feldman said homeless people forgo health care most often because they lack insurance, lack transportation and lack trust for health care professionals.

His program is free. He sets up clinics in places where they're comfortable and returns regularly to build relationships and establish trust.

In addition to caring for their medical needs, he helps refer them to social workers. He explains how they can get a photo ID or a government-subsidized phone so they can seek employment and get back on their feet.

"Their biggest challenges are things that we thought we had solved a century ago: basic sanitation, access to clean water and access to a reliable food supply," Feldman said. "In this population they still don't have those basic things."

Many homeless also struggle with mental health or substance abuse issues. The average life expectancy for homeless individuals is 49. So any basic health assistance Feldman can provide goes a long way.

Not every medical professional would be willing to trek through mud under bridges or through brush into tent encampments.

"He also goes and visits them outside at their locations, brings medical supplies and makes sure everyone is doing well," Mitchell said. "He's a great guy and a true blessing here." His position is funded in part through Lehigh Valley Health Network and the Pennsylvania Department of Health. The Dorothy Rider Pool Health Care Trust just donated the program a $200,000 two-year grant.

Feldman won't get rich helping the homeless. He says he earns "enough that I can do what I need to do." But he wouldn't have it any other way.

"I try and live as modestly as possible," he said. "It's hard to worry about how much money you're making when you see what they're going through."




Information from: The (Easton, Pa.) Express-Times,

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