When the pandemic hit, the Mount Carmel nurse started bringing medical care every day to homeless camps around Columbus.

The camp, tucked into the woods on the West Side of Columbus, is not without pride and dignity. A towel at the entrance to one tent functions as a doormat; duck blinds camouflage the site from people who might find the path that leads there. Someone has arranged stones near the entrance to mark off a small garden; inside the garden is a metal star and a small sign that reads “RESERVED PRIVATE PARTY.”

By society’s standards, the people who live here are homeless. But it’s clear that this is a home. “I always remember that, when I come to visit,” says Jalee Helmuth, a nurse with Mount Carmel Health System, who sees patients in the homeless camps spread across Columbus.

For the last two years, Helmuth has been part of Mount Carmel’s Street Medicine team, which has been around for more than 30 years. The team also includes a nurse practitioner, a community paramedic, a medical director and an outreach coordinator. During normal, nonpandemic times, the team works in clinics and camps, and visits shelters and places that offer free meals, trying to bring medical care to people who might not otherwise receive it.

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But when the COVID-19 pandemic started, Helmuth and the rest of the team faced a new set of challenges: How could they keep their patients safe when the places their patients typically went—for shelter, warmth, showers and so many other things—were closed? How could they get rapidly changing information to their patients, who, by and large, didn’t have access to televisions for Gov. Mike DeWine’s daily news briefings, or to the internet or newspapers where articles about the virus were available? How would the virus play out among their patients, who already deal with a variety of medical and life issues, ranging from addiction to joblessness to depression and on and on? How could they keep themselves and their families safe, not knowing how the virus was spreading?

The team took a day or two to map out a plan: They would split into two groups, to limit exposure to one another. They would wear masks and carry lots of hand sanitizer. And they would make sure that, in addition to antibiotic ointments and allergy medications, they came bearing as much news about the virus as they could.

Now, every morning, they make their “rounds,” visiting camps, checking on patients who have recently been in the hospital, or who have longstanding health issues, or who need medical supplies.

On a recent morning, Helmuth and two others from Mount Carmel—Jackie White, a nurse practitioner, and Andrew Pierson, a community paramedic—walk a winding path into the woods. Helmuth carries a small backpack; White a container of bagged lunches. Pierson’s pack is sized for a weeklong backpacking trip and holds an array of medical supplies.

“Avery, are you in there?” asks Helmuth, as the camp comes into view.

From inside the main tent, a middle-aged man with dark hair hobbles out. He has recently been discharged from another Central Ohio hospital, after being hospitalized with bacterial infections on both his legs.

“Hey, Jalee,” he says to Helmuth, before nodding at the others.

“You OK if we take a look at your feet?” she asks.

He nods, then leads the team to a second canopy tent, where five camp chairs are placed around a small firepit. He sits down in one, while Helmuth and White pull gloves on and kneel to check the wrappings on his legs. His boots are heavy and his socks wet; his legs are swollen and wrapped from his feet to his knees. As Helmuth cuts the wrappings from one leg and then begins massaging antibiotic cream into his feet, she asks him about the day he ended up in the hospital.

Helmuth listens and nods as he describes the experience, which was, for him, unpleasant and frustrating.

“Basically, they told me that from the waist down, I’m about 100 years old,” he says. “This leg and feet thing, it’s going to be that way the rest of my life, however much time I’ve got left.”

Helmuth shakes her head. “I’m so sorry to hear that, Avery, that sounds horrible on your body.” She offers him the tube of antibiotic cream and asks if she can put a new pair of dry socks on his feet.

“If it’s OK with you, we’d like to come back soon, maybe in five or six days,” she tells him. “I’m worried about those feet.” He nods.

As Helmuth and her colleagues walk toward the next camp, she explains her philosophy. “There are times we walk in and they are glad to see us, and then there are times we come and they say, ‘No, not today,’ and that’s OK,” she says. “The key is to love people well over time. Because each of these people is a whole person, with heartaches and happiness and good times and bad. And they deserve to be loved, and to know that we care about them and that we care about them consistently. That’s all we can do.” 

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