Monday, August 14, 2000

Med students tend to inner-city ailments

By Mara H. Gottfried
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LaDon is a 50-year-old schizophrenic convinced he will one day find a cure for cancer with his microscope.

        “I'm doing private research,” LaDon said. “I ain't got very far. I need a doctor to help me.”

        Matt Sfiligoj might be his man. They are sitting together in the common room of Tender Mercies Inc. in Over-the-Rhine. Mr. Sfiligoj, a 23-year-old University of Cincinnati medical student, is here to learn about the intangibles that affect mentally ill patients who are poor and possibly homeless.

        Mr. Sfiligoj and LaDon (whose last name is being withheld to protect his privacy) were brought together by the Urban Health Project, a summer program that places UC medical students in social service agencies.

        The students learn how poverty can impact their future patients. And the people they see receive added attention.

        Community-oriented programs are commonplace at large medical schools. But the Urban Health Project was one of the first when the student-run program began 15 years ago.

        Dr. Deborah Danoff, assistant vice president with the Association of American Medical Colleges, said when the Urban Health Project began, few medical schools around the country were interested in the social aspects of health.

        This year, the project placed about 25 first-year medical students at agencies ranging from the American Cancer Society to the Lighthouse Youth Crisis Center to the Breast and Cervical Cancer Project.

        Forty-seven percent of UC's medical class — 75 students — applied for the project. Only 35 percent were accepted. The Urban Health Project is not a required component of the curriculum. It receives a small amount of money from the medical school, but is primarily privately funded.

        Mr. Sfiligoj devotes about 40 hours a week to the residents of Tender Mercies, a facility that provides housing to homeless mentally ill people. He drives them to doctor appointments, administers medication, takes them on social outings and listens to their life stories.

        The experiences have been an eye-opener for Mr. Sfiligoj.

        “I grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland so I've never been exposed to this,” the Clifton man said. “Doctors need to see people for who they are. This has helped me get past that so I won't get caught up in appearances when I'm a doctor.”

        Marcia Spaeth, director of Tender Mercies, said Mr. Sfiligoj has gone beyond his job description in helping at least one resident.

        Mr. Sfiligoj arranged for Daniel, 62, to see a podiatrist because of problems with his feet. Now, Mr. Sfiligoj administers daily treatments for Daniel and massages his feet.

        “It takes a special person to do that,” Ms. Spaeth said.

        That level of compassion is what Yvette Neirouz, the project's director, hopes participants will take away from the program.

        “We spend a lot of time in school learning the science side of medicine, but not the social side,” the 23-year-old student said. “This gives us a chance to increase our sensitivity to urban issues. A lot of people complain that doctors lack this compassion.”

        There is compassion when Mr. Sfiligoj talks with Gino, a 63-year-old resident at Tender Mercies.

        “Doctors are short with him and they don't pay enough atten tion, (that's) what he tells me,” Mr. Sfiligoj said. “I listen so hopefully in the future I won't make the same mistakes. A lot of them have real problems, but communicating with doctors effectively becomes the problem.”

        Gino smiles when he talks about Mr. Sfiligoj's joking nature. Then his face turns serious.

        “Matt is a good man,” he said. “He'll probably be even better a few years from now when he's a doctor.

        “I hope he'll be a good doctor. Actually, I'm sure that he will.”


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