So this story came to mind. And today being Thursday, my first thought was to post it. Then I had a second, more troubling thought that perhaps should have occurred to me a long time ago, but hasn't until now: is it not odd for a journalist to not only recall his own stories after more than a quarter century, but then to imagine they are worth sharing with strangers? I think they are, but then I'm biased. But maybe there's something pitiful about the practice and I shouldn't indulge in it anymore. What do you think?
Lamar Perkins' feet hurt.
They should—he was on them all day, all week, doing what the homeless do, walking from place to place, looking for food, looking for money, looking to kill the time.
"These dogs have been everywhere!" says Perkins, 42, slipping off his ruined shoes in a back room at the Center for Street People, 4455 N. Broadway. "These dogs bite."
He puts his right foot up on a metal chair, where Tom Haberman, a third-year student at the Dr. Scholl College of Podiatric Medicine, begins to clip his toenails.
"Yeah, that's what I need," Perkins says.
Six shelters in Chicago receive weekly visits from students in Dr. Scholl's Footcare for the Homeless program, a neat blend of altruism and education that has been copied in several big cities.
For the homeless, it is a chance to have their hammertoes, their corns, bunions, calluses, trenchfoot, open sores, athlete's foot, and other painful foot conditions attended to by professionals for no charge.
And for the students, it is a chance to do good and see conditions that they might not otherwise encounter in their four years of medical study.
"It's good, solid exposure to enhance your mechanical skills," says Greg Whitaker, 26, from Long Beach, Calif. "It also makes your day, to reduce a callus for a patient, or a painful toenail. They feel better right away. It's extremely rewarding."
As upperclassmen, Whitaker and Haberman can work directly on the feet of patients, supervised by Dr. Philip Gianfortune, an ebullient man who keeps the clinic running smoothly with his easygoing good humor.
When more clean socks are needed, he calls for them with an operatic flourish and a cry of "Fresh socks!"
When the sickening stench of unwell feet begins to overwhelm, he ventilates the room without agitating the patients.
"Crack some of these windows open," he says, in a winking way. "Nothing personal, guys; it's just warm in here."
The rest of the students—all freshmen —watch and make themselves useful however they can, digging into bags of supplies for powders and lotions, hovering in the background, waiting for a particularly exciting foot condition to present itself.
"Onychogryposis!" Gianfortune announces happily, and the freshmen crowd around to take a look.
The patients are good-humored, polite and appreciative.
"I've been coming here a long time," says Morrie Bell, 28 and homeless for the last four months. He gestures to Gianfortune. "He's the best toe doc I ever saw in my life. He'll set your toe right. They're good doctors."
Two freshmen on their first clinic visit are impressed and relieved that their fears of menacing homeless people and a bedlamlike clinic were unfounded.
"I'm surprised at how efficient it is," says Michael Cornelison, 23, of Riverside, Calif. "As a first-year, you don't get a lot of hands-on experience. Finally, an opportunity for us to help out."
"Not as chaotic as I expected," said Lisa Pocius, 24, of Lockport, who was nervous before she went to the clinic. "I didn't expect people to be so friendly."
The last patient is Michael Alelunas, 55, who has terrible sores on both feet. He gets new dressings and antibiotics to fight the infection that already has created an ugly red discolored patch on one ankle. He asks timidly for new socks.
"It's after 8 o'clock," says Gianfortune. "You know socks don't last until after 8 o'clock."
The clinic costs Scholl about $30,000 a year, mostly for supplies, gas for the "Schollmobile" that runs volunteers to the six shelters they visit each week, and a small stipend for the faculty member who oversees each clinic.
Though it receives financial support from organizations such as the Chicago Community Trust and the Washington Square Health Foundation, money is always tight. Gianfortune encourages his students to scoop up handfuls of free medical product samples at health fairs, and nobody can seem to keep up a steady supply of new athletic socks.
"It doesn't do any good to treat people's foot conditions and then put old rags back on," he said.
From the college's point of view, treating the homeless has a value to the podiatrists-to-be beyond homeless people's chilling collection of foot ailments.
"It's an opportunity to give students experience in compassion," said Steve Davis, a spokesman for the school. "One of the benefits of the clinic is to help make them good doctors, doctors who treat people in their communities regardless of social condition."
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 1, 1994
Dr. Gianfortune retired last year, after expanding Dr. Scholl's outreach to needy communities. He still volunteers.