Foot care for homeless: UTC students provide service, look for health problems

Foot care for homeless: UTC students provide service, look for health problems

April 5th, 2013 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Krista Alvaro rubs lotion into Ronnie Barclay's feet Wednesday at the Community Kitchen.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

HOW TO HELP

The Community Kitchen needs donations of large toenail clippers, pumice stones, nonlatex gloves and cream or spray for athlete's foot.

Reading glasses pushed to the edge of his nose, Ron Barclay sat atop his throne and scanned a folded sheet of paper.

"Do you know how to say 'goodbye?'" he asked a young blond woman sitting near his feet, which were soaking in warm water.

"No," said Krista Alvaro.

"Hasta lou-AY-goo," Barclay answered, reading his sheet and drawing out each syllable.

"What about hasta la vista?" Alvaro asked. "What does that mean?"

"Goodbye," he said. "Like, 'I'll be back, dude.'"

Barclay pointed at Robin Pearlstein, standing at the door that divides the foot-washing clinic from the rest of the Chattanooga Community Kitchen.

"I'm grading your students," Barclay told Pearlstein, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga professor who teaches community health nursing.

Barclay said he has been taking Spanish classes at the Community Kitchen the last two weeks, and on Wednesday afternoon he quizzed the three UTC nursing students who staffed the clinic. Students come here three times each week, two hours each time.

Community Kitchen staff began washing the feet of the homeless a little more than 10 years ago, said Jens Christensen, the kitchen's assistant director. About five years ago, UTC nursing assistant professor Lisa Muirhead asked to get students involved at the kitchen, and Christensen suggested this program.

Sitting at the edge of a pair of pedicure chairs, the nursing students look for signs of diabetes and gout. They look for little pains to be relieved, like blisters or bunions. At each visit, they soak, scrub and lather between 12 and 20 feet. They file dead skin, clip long toenails.

Homeless people need their feet cleaned, Christensen said, because they walk farther than most people -- to the kitchen, to the shelter, to a job, if they can find one. And when they walk, they often do so in shoes with little, if any, support. They're susceptible to health problems.

Nursing student Megan Hobbs, 22, didn't expect to use a pedicure chair. She thought she would dip the feet in buckets. So did Daniel Belknap, another nurse in training.

"It's not awful," he said. "It's really not. We have a nice setup, and we have good conversations. ... There's no judgment."

Belknap, 48, used to snap pictures of Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer. He used to be a professional photographer, his work appearing in magazines and advertisements. But digital cameras changed his industry, the economy tanked and demand for a man of his skills dried up.

So he followed his wife to Chattanooga when she got a job as an art teacher, and he restarted his career. The medical field is always hiring, he said, so he chose nursing school. Eventually, he wants to be a surgeon's first assistant.

As part of Pearlstein's class, students rotate work. This week, Alvaro, Belknap and Hobbs clean feet. Earlier in the semester, they shadowed ER nurses. And they've also done hospice work.

Pearlstein said foot washing provides a good lesson for students. The work itself is important; it can prevent major health issues. But more important is the conversations they have with the homeless.

Not everything the clients say is true, she said, and not everything they say makes sense or even is understandable, but just listening means a lot. The clients need someone to hear their stories.

Before becoming a professor three years ago, Pearlstein spent 35 years as a nurse. First she worked at mental health centers. But in the 1980s, she said, politicians pushed to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill, and several of her patients became homeless. She switched jobs.

"I followed my patients out into the streets," she said.

She said some people get their feet washed each week. Others come and go. Barclay has come a couple of times. A counselor at the kitchen told him about it, and he thought it would be a good idea.

"If you don't take care of your feet," he said, "what the hell are you going to stand up on?"

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.