Thursday, November 12, 2020

Flashback 1994: Med Students Get Feet Wet Helping Homeless

     Talking to a friend earlier this week, the subject turned to medical stories. She mentioned that there is a Dr. Scholl College of Podiatry in Chicago. I replied yes, I wrote a story on their clinic to the homeless. It was years ago, but I can still nose those street people stripping off their socks.
     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.
     In the span of two hours, the team sees ulcerated feet and many corns and calluses. They construct foam sheaths to protect hurt toes, check for the numbness that betrays untreated diabetes, and urge a woman with trench foot to keep her feet dry.

     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.


  1. Keep doing it!!!
    I enjoy revisiting columns and stories from decades past. Maybe it is symptom of age, but I first look for the almanac from the Daily News in the Sunday Sun-Times. It is a way to remember how much - or little - things have changes.

  2. There's nothing wrong with reprinting them - they read as good as new. Please keep them coming. Thanks for posting it, and thanks for asking.

  3. Absolutely continue to post these old stories. Most of your faithful will be reading them for the first time and the intent is still relevant and worthy of sharing. If the shoe fits...

  4. It may be 25 years old but it’s new to me. Sort of like a homeless person who gets some used, but clean socks. It’s new to them. Good to hear about the good that is all around us, too often overshadowed by the evil.

  5. Of course they're worth sharing. Nothing pitiful about it at all. Keep 'em coming!

  6. I for one love these little trips back in time. This one was especially poignant for me, because I lived in the Uptown area for several years in the 70s and could easily imagine people I came in contact with every day needing treatment for their feet and lots of other things as well. As medicinal as wine can be, it certainly doesn't cure all ills.


  7. Don't ever doubt that a story like this is worth sharing.

  8. I love this. I often worry about homeless peoples' feet as I see them in obvious pain with every step, shoes that don't fit, sometimes no shoes, often with medical conditions that affect the feet.

  9. This column is as interesting as it was when you wrote it. The blog is a showcase for your writing; here's a bit of your writing. Most of your readers seem to have enjoyed reading about your random trips to Sunset Foods; they'll certainly be happy to read about this. (Though we commenters may not be a representative sample of the overall EGD readership, of course.)

  10. Wonderful story. Thanks, Mr. S. No one should have to go without the basic necessities required for human dignity.

    Here in Cleveland, a local community organization that is concerned with the plight of the homeless started the SocksPLUS initiative six years ago, after learning that socks were, and still are, the most-requested item by the homeless. A ten-dollar donation buys ten pairs of socks. A larger donation provides socks PLUS (sorry for the pun) other desperately-needed necessities for the homeless.

    SocksPLUS has evoked emotion and generous support from individuals, churches, schools and businesses, especially during the holiday season. They contribute new socks, new underwear, toiletries, winter gloves and hats, boots, backpacks, sleeping bags, and even tents. When my wife bought me new socks for Christmas, she purposely waited for a two-for-one sale so that we could drop off a donation. It felt good.

  11. Is it naive for a reader to think that if a column was worth printing/posting in the first place, then it should be worthy of reprinting more than a quarter of a century later? Or, since not every column can be equal in merit, that if an author chooses to reprint, he/she would not choose from the lesser half of their oeuvre? As for this particular piece, I am a fairly new reader and fan of your column, so it was new to me. It raises many questions, e.g., Does the clinic continue without Dr. Gianfortune? Did all of the young doctors-in-training go on to become practicing medicos and did this experience continue to influence them in their practices? Did any of the homeless mentioned ever stop being homeless? If a column is supposed to get you thinking about things, then this one still does 25 years on.

  12. I remember when this article was first published. At the time, I was grateful you highlighted a need, and hoped there was a subsequent increase in donated socks! The need is probably greater now than 25 yrs ago. I hope for the same outcome! Thank you!

  13. LOL Didn't expect to cry. Thank you for the story, I love reposts, and thank you for the link. I need every "This is what Humanity really looks like" story you want to give us.


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