Learning Through Doing: DPM Students Lend Support to New Orleans Lower 9th Ward Health Clinic

New Orleans Lower 9th Ward SignDuring the second week of April when most Doctoral of Podiatric Medicine (DPM) students took off for Spring Break, Peter Barbosa, PhD Professor of Biochemistry and Immunology and Director of Research at Samuel Merritt College, and five DPM students flew to Louisiana to provide free podiatric care to New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward Health-Clinic.

The Lower Ninth Ward, sometimes just referred to as the "Lower 9," came to national attention for its tragic devastation in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Few areas in New Orleans were as hard hit by Hurricane Katrina as the Lower Ninth Ward. This predominantly African American, working-class neighborhood remains largely in ruins two and a half years later.

"When we first got to the Lower 9 I expected see a few houses in ruins, but what I saw was every other house in ruins," said Jamie Bakal, DPM student. "Roofs were torn off, spray painted signs on every single house. It was a pretty scary sight because everything just looked so isolated."

But seeing the devastation did not deter the students from their medical mission to serve the people of New Orleans. In fact, it only enhanced their willingness to help the returning survivors of the Lower 9. For three days the students worked in two exam rooms, alongside local podiatrist, Dr. Denardo Dunham and nurses from the Lower 9th Ward Health clinic.

"The doctors that were supervising us on the day-to-day operations were really supportive; they helped us if we felt we couldn't diagnose something. They were right there to catch us," said James Johnson, DPM student. "They treated us as equals which was really nice."

"It's such an unselfish contribution for these young people to come and assist," said Alice Craft-Kerney, RN BSN Executive Director Lower Ninth Ward Health Clinic. "Their services were needed because numerous residents are uninsured and many podiatrists will treat insured patients only, so having DPM students provided an opportunity for patients who have problems with their feet to be examined and given quality care."

DPM Students at the Lower 9th Ward Health Clinic

For the students it was an opportunity to hone their clinical skills.

"We were able to do a lot of diabetic foot education and provided handouts and nail care," said Chatra Klaisri, DPM student. "I enjoyed treating the patients because it gave me a chance to talk to them about their hurricane Katrina experience. They were very appreciative and surprised to find out we came all the way from California."

The week-long trip was made possible by a donation from an SMC donor-advised fund designated for community service projects, student led fundraisers and donations made by members of the SMC community. The Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ and collaborating partner ACT--All Congregations Together, helped provide logistical assistance.

Discussions are currently underway regarding future partnership with the SMC Family Nurse Practitioner and Physician Assistant programs, and the Lower Ninth Ward Health Clinic.

"I think it's critical for students at Samuel Merritt College to go to other places and see the different treatment protocols from the East Coast to the West Coast," said Johnson. "It's not uniform. For instance, on the West Coast we are very heavy on the biomechanics and on the East they are heavy on surgery and podiatric medicine."

"I've always wanted to do a medical mission and after going to New Orleans, it makes me want to help other communities in need or areas hit by devastation," said Bakal.

"As far as changing the way I'm going to practice down the line, it made me aware of people's needs and what I'm going to see in my own office someday," said Johnson.

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