Pounding the Pavement With Purpose
By Chuck Graham
They come from all walks of life within the medical field: family medical practitioners, nurses, firemen, paramedics and a throng of volunteers whose compassion never wavers. Equipped with backpacks brimming with medical supplies, they walk the streets of Santa Barbara treating the homeless and those who are without access to healthcare.
Doctors Without Walls (DWW) officially began in 2008. Inspired by trailblazing physician Dr. Jim Withers of Pittsburgh Mercy Hospital, who created a movement of street medicine in the 1970s, nonprofit medical organizations and their legions of volunteers across the U.S. and overseas were empowered by his vision to treat those less fortunate. There are now approximately 100 street medicine clinics around the world.
“He would dress up as a homeless individual and take to the streets,” says Maria Long, executive director of DWW. “It was cutting-edge healthcare. Hospitals started implementing street medicine across the country after that.”
Built locally from the ground up by Dr. Bob Gains from the V.A. clinic and Father Jon Hedges, DWW is now a large nonprofit organization possessing a unique model. By utilizing volunteers and undergrad interns, DWW delivers medicine to the homeless, while simultaneously launching careers in the medical field.
Long said DWW has 30 to 40 licensed clinicians, myriad healthcare professionals. Working under those professionals are 250 volunteers and a highly successful education program. DWW receives more than 350 volunteer applications per year, accepting 100, and the highly sought-after coordinators range from 10 to 14 paid positions.
“With the healthcare system in a state of flux, this helps them [interns] learn compassionate medicine,” says Long, who has worked for DWW for four years. “Ninety-nine percent of the time those students get into med school.”
Virtually every day, a service is provided for the homeless through DWW. Collectively, DWW does backpack medicine. They go into all sorts of unlivable spaces, such as alleys, under bridges and storage containers. DWW has its own pharmacy, but no narcotics are involved and education is of the utmost importance.
Doctors Without Walls is the largest and only street medicine clinic in the world that isn’t supported by a teaching hospital (a hospital or medical center that provides clinical education and training to future health care professionals). The nonprofit is completely supported by fundraising. Its largest fundraising event is the 4th annual Glow in the Park at Elings Park on September 16.
Long created the event in 2014, along with logistical guru Mike Lazaro of Carp Events, and it’s proved to be a beloved soiree that stands out among a plethora of fundraisers. In addition to some of the best food and dance music in Santa Barbara, guests gather just after sunset beneath a fleet of hot air balloons. As the sun goes down, the balloons inflate, glowing in the dark as they ascend skyward.
“I wanted something creative and outside,” says Long. “We’re celebrating our volunteers. It’s taken a lot of talented people to come together. Without them, it wouldn’t work. It’s really a community effort. People drawn to this work are really unique and compassionate.”
Originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.