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Editorial: HEALS volunteer program provides medical help to those in desperate need

Helping the less fortunate begins at home, a mission embodied in good work being done by volunteer medical students and doctors.

They have been taking to the streets in order to bring medical services to the homeless and those simply down on their luck. Providing over-the-counter medications, along with free medical advice and transportation, even for a few short blocks, these volunteers are doing good work for this community.

In Buffalo, one of the poorest cities in the nation, many  people are in dire need of a helping hand. And there are a number of organizations and individuals working day in and day out to fill those needs.

The University at Buffalo HEALS, Homeless Health Education Awareness and Leadership in Service, which partners with the Matt Urban Hope Center, is a critical participant. The HEALS volunteer program has only been around since March. It was inspired by a street medicine program called Operation Safety Net started by Dr. Jim Withers in Pittsburgh in 1992.

As News staff reporter Anne Neville wrote and News staff photographer Sharon Cantillon illustrated, the group goes where the clients are and they don’t bother putting on pristine white medical jackets before heading out. “Instead, medical student volunteers don jackets and warm hats, hoist bags packed with supplies and seek out patients in the downtown bus station, under bridges and in housing for the chronically homeless.”

They often begin at the downtown bus station, where they encounter familiar faces and new ones. Their “clients” have gotten used to the medical group and the comfort level has increased with a more ready exchange of symptoms and solutions.

No matter the weather or “work” conditions, these volunteers readily offer their services to people who may be in desperate need of medical care but have obstacles: transportation or the memory of a bad experience.  It is sometimes easy to jump to conclusions. For the medical students, working with HEALS provides them with an understanding that they may not receive in a classroom.

The experiences and conversations have clearly made an impact on these medical students and professionals.

Dr. David Milling recalled a 19-year-old lying under a bridge. The young man was wrapped in an afghan to ward off the cold night air.

“He was just a few years younger than the students who were evaluating him,” he said. “That kind of sticks with you.”

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