Bringing Healthcare to the Homeless
On a Friday night, as the sun sets and commuters drive home from their jobs in downtown Tampa, Skye Schmelzer heads into the city on a mission, one that will take her to places most people avoid. Clipboard in hand, she joins USF medical students armed with backpacks containing first-aid supplies, over-the-counter medications and hygiene products. They venture down sidewalks and through alleys littered with cigarette butts, fast food wrappers and rusty soda cans. Before long, the back street transforms into a makeshift medical office.
Skye didn’t start Tampa Bay Street Medicine (TBSM), but working with medically underserved populations has always been her passion. A trained medical scribe and biomedical sciences student at USF, Skye volunteers with the student-led community-service organization at USF Health that provides free care to the homeless. She follows the supervising medical doctor throughout the night, jotting down patient notes in shorthand.
Skye is the only member who is not in medical school. But what she lacks in health knowledge, she makes up for with determination and an understanding of what the patients are going through.
Skye was just 17 years old when she found herself sleeping in the backseat of a car or crashing at one of her friend’s houses. Her parents struggled with mental health issues and addiction. “It always felt like I was hungry and looking for somewhere safe to sleep,” she confided. “I started asking friends for a lot of favors: Can I shower at your place? Can I eat dinner with your family? Can I sleep here tonight?”
Against that uncertain backdrop, Skye struggled to maintain her studies at her Tampa high school where she was enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program. She relied on public computers at the library to do her work and started skipping school so she could pick up extra shifts at her job to survive. Just as she was ready to drop out, her high school guidance counselor found a lifeline – a nonprofit that provided an apartment, food and school supplies.
“That was truly the turning point in my life. Those people saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. They believed in me when no one ever had before.”
Now Skye is helping to bring a light to others living in darkness. And while the backpack brigade is a great step toward doing that, it’s not enough for her. While living in Gainesville for a short time, she remembers finding medical care for her ailing mother in the form of a mobile clinic. That’s what she wanted for TBSM. Skye started with the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and its Hero of Tomorrow program. She shared her story and her desire to deliver a van for TBSM.
“We were quite touched by Skye’s life story, how she persevered through adversity,” explained Elizabeth Frazier, the Foundation’s executive director. “She’s a very caring woman who has always wanted to be a part of her community and reach out to help those in need.”
The Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation awarded Skye a $50,000 grant, half to go toward the medical van and the other $25,000 to help her further her education. Inspired by her success, TBSM students also applied for, and received, a $75,000 grant from the Humana Foundation, which enabled the student group to move forward with purchasing the vehicle.
“As an organization, we understand the importance of increasing access to healthcare,” said Remy Noble, project manager at the Humana Foundation. “When it comes to the homeless population, the barriers are large and difficult to overcome. This medical van is an innovative and effective way for TBSM to break down those barriers for their patients and bring healthcare services to people who really need it.”
It is also a unique environment for medical students who are used to honing their care-giving skills in a sanitized and structured setting. "We go directly to the unsheltered environment of the homeless people in Tampa and deliver high-quality healthcare to these at risk and marginalized populations," said Abby Pribish, co-president of TBSM.
The final step was to outfit the van with medical supplies.
By this time, Skye’s inspirational story was making its way around the medical community, specifically to Dr. Irfan Ali. The president and founder of Pioneer Medical Group offered to not only take care of turning the van into a mobile medical clinic but also to hire drivers and a registered nurse practitioner to provide professional guidance and much-needed prescription for the patients.
“I believe it is each person’s duty to contribute to the community you live in,” said Dr. Ali. “The Tampa Bay Street Medicine team is doing a wonderful job and brings hope to the most vulnerable people in our community. The physicians are training the students not just how to practice medicine, but how to be good humans and give service to others.”
In the fall of 2017, the TBSM mobile clinic will hit the streets of Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco Counties. The group will be able to treat 10 times the number of patients, and it’s all thanks to Skye and the TBSM students who spend their nights spreading hope and health in the community.
“I never thought I could make this kind of impact,” said Skye. “But it’s because of my past experiences and the help I received from the community that I am on the path I am now. So many people have gone out of their way to help me, and I want to live the rest of my life repaying those blessings.”