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Vanderbilt doctor helps homeless get needed medical treatment

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) - What do the faces of homelessness look like?  

Is it the person on the side of the road asking for help? The people sleeping in a tent in the woods or on a park bench?  

For one Vanderbilt doctor and professor, none of that matters. She's only there to help.  

News 2 recently tagged along to see the lifesaving program first-hand. 

In many ways, Dr. Sheryl Fleisch is like any other doctor. Just as physicians do their rounds in hospitals, she does rounds, too.  

"We just do our rounds at people's campsites," explained Dr. Fleisch.  

Here, they're called 'street rounds,' and just as patients who need extra care make appointments in an office, her patients can be referred to other treatment as well.  

"But we do our appointments at wherever that person wants. It might be their campsite, it may be McDonald's, it may be at a shelter."  

Dr. Fleisch runs the Homeless Health Services program at Vanderbilt. Every week, she goes out to homeless camps to provide psychiatric treatment. She works with a team of other doctors and they usually see about 10 to 15 patients a day.   

Dr. Fleisch and her patients gave News 2 permission to document their appointments.  

Most doctors' appointments start with the patients filling out forms. Here, Dr. Fleisch hands out supplies.

"Do you guys need a sleeping bag or a few blankets?"  

Then, it's time for rounds.  

Ron Clinger is her first patient. He became homeless about five years ago right after his wife died. He now lives in the woods with his friend Renee.  

"The struggle is real out here. It's no joke. I've got a sick friend I take care of, too. It's a day to day struggle," Clinger told News 2.  

Dr. Fleisch meets one-on-one with her patients, then, if needed prescribes medication. They are a legitimized clinic through Vanderbilt. 

"One of the things that really differentiates us on a national scale is that we are embedded with our medical center and we are well-supported," said Dr. Fleisch.  

"She got me on the right medicine, they come out and talk to us, we sit down for an hour at a time. They know who we are and what we need," said Clinger.  

Dr. Fleisch told News 2 about a third of people who are homeless have a mental illness.   

"I think one of the most important things when you are talking about the faces of homelessness, is that most people who are homeless actually didn't fall into homelessness because of substance abuse or mental illness, only about a quarter of people fall into homelessness because of substance abuse and mental health, which is a significant amount. But, the remaining 75 percent of people really fall into homelessness due to job loss, increase in rent prices, due to leaving incarceration and not having a place to go after that or due to divorce or family situations," says Dr. Fleisch.  

Dr. Fleisch documents their visits and then stores all her patients' information in a database.  

"The fact that we are able to analyze data and trends is something that is really critical to not only to manage this population but to make a difference," said Dr. Fleisch.  

That's the ultimate goal, to save lives. Since the program started five years ago, they have done just that.  

"We have been able to house as a team 39 people with the partnership with a nonprofit that we work with we have been able to achieve disability on over 120 people," explained Dr. Fleisch.  

Not only that, they're saving the hospital money.  

"We've been able to decrease emergency room utilization and hospital room utilization by 50 percent due to the efforts," said Dr. Fleisch.  

Dr. Fleisch's job is not easy and success varies from day-to-day.  

"Patients, who, for two years on the streets may just walk by you, may wave and say nothing. Then two years later may stop and say, 'Hey, doc there's a problem with my foot. Can you help me?' I always grin to myself and say that was a success because, after two years of not talking to us, they finally trust us," Dr. Fleisch said.  

After trust, comes healing, and that's exactly why she does this job.  

"I do this because I think that this is the right thing to do. I think that treating everybody like a person is the right thing to do. I would treat someone who is housed like this and I would treat someone who is homeless like this."  

Dr. Fleisch has a team of people who frequent several homeless camps in the area. It's one of very few street psychiatry programs in the country.  

The rate for people showing up at their scheduled appointments is over 90 percent, which is much higher than traditional psychiatric or medical follow-ups, a testament, Dr. Fleisch said, to how invested her patients are in getting help.  

Click here to read more stories from "Homeless in Music City."


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