Phil Haslanger: Doctor finds way to help people on the margins

2010-10-03T05:00:00Z 2010-10-04T12:32:49Z Phil Haslanger: Doctor finds way to help people on the marginsPhil Haslanger | local columnist
October 03, 2010 5:00 am  • 

She was 49 years old, homeless and trying to deal with a sore wrist.

The night before, she had met with Dr. Cate Ranheim at the Salvation Army homeless shelter. Ranheim did some initial assessments, then suggested the woman come to a converted hut just off Fish Hatchery Road the next day for further medical care.

Now the woman was sitting with Barb Simons, a full-time nurse working for the HEALTH Program, which is nearing the completion of its first year in existence. It turns out this woman has more than just medical problems. Her husband died last December. She has four children -- two of them are adults, the others are 11 and 14. She has a low level of literacy, no job and no place to live.

But now she also has connected with a medical team that will find ways to meet her physical needs. A caseworker at the Salvation Army is helping her with other issues in her life.

This is one glimpse of the challenges facing the growing number of poor people in Dane County and one glimpse of a new program that is working on the front lines around health issues. The program is an example of how a few people who took notice of the needs of people living on the edges can make a huge difference. And in a time when too many people look past those needs, it raises the question of what caused Ranheim to respond.

Ranheim, whose specialty at Meriter Hospital is hematology, often worked in the emergency room, where she saw patients who were living on the margins come back again and again for medical care. She began to work on a plan to provide initial medical care for these folks. The Meriter Foundation provided a start-up grant.

Last November, Ranheim and other doctors and volunteers she recruited began making one visit a week to a place where the homeless and marginal gathered.

“By offering mobile care, we begin to open up trust with people,” said Ranheim. “Our goal is to get them to a medical home.”

In the case of the woman with the sore wrist, nurse Barb Simons was able to cut through red tape to get her an appointment within a week at Access Community Health Center, to help this woman get a new medical home.

Once started, the HEALTH Program grew. Simons joined as an employee. St. Vincent de Paul gave the program the use of the “Hut” near its new food pantry and administrative offices. The Hut is open daily, and weekly visits to various sites continue.

Now about a dozen doctors plus another 40 nurses, social workers, other health care workers and administrative support people volunteer their time. In its first 11 months, the program has served 185 patients, 58 percent of them homeless, 70 percent of them with no way to pay for health care.

So why does Ranheim do this? She has a great career inside the hospital, a growing family, a husband (Erik) who is also a doctor. But she walks into places that many people in the city would go out of their way to avoid, dealing with some very uncomfortable issues.

“Erik and I have both been very, very poor in our lives,” Ranheim said, “and maybe that is why it is so easy for us to understand that the difference between us and the men and women we see at the shelter is often just bad luck, or maybe the consequences of one bad choice.”

So they were attuned to the social situation of the people coming to them for medical care. And then they found a way to act.

“Being physicians,” she said, “the most obvious way for us to try to help others out of poverty is by providing medical care.”

She noticed. She planned a response. She got others involved. And for many people living on the streets, their future got a little brighter.

Phil Haslanger is pastor of Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg.

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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