By Erica Houskeeper
Katrina Thornburgh looks forward to her weekly trips to Franklin County in the Vermont Cares mobile outreach van.
Thornburgh, an Albert Schweitzer Fellow and medical student at the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont, is part of an effort to expand mobile syringe services in communities such as St. Albans, Enosburg, and Swanton in northwestern Vermont.
On Fridays, she drives the Vermont Cares van to meet clients for needle exchanges and offer harm reduction micro-counseling and resource referrals. People who come to the van receive free, anonymous services, such as safe, sterile syringes, safe disposal of used needles, and sterile medical equipment for safe injections.
Thornburgh, who is interested in practicing community health or family medicine, says the program offers a safe space for clients and a chance to connect a human level.
“I love having the chance to meet up with regular clients and catch up on real-life topics with them—updates on their kids, the local community, and friends,” she says. “The area lacks a lot of support for people who use drugs, and I hope the mobile van is a way to build momentum for this cause.”
Before Thornburgh partnered with Vermont Cares for her fellowship project, the mobile van trips to Franklin County were less frequent. Now with weekly visits, clients can call a phone number on a mobile app that connects them to Thornburgh or another Vermont Cares volunteer. The van then travels to the client’s town or a nearby community, typically parking at a Park and Ride location or in a parking lot.
“When people come inside the van, sometimes we’ll close the door or we’ll keep it open. I’ll talk to clients about safer injection, how to avoid an abscess, and how to treat an abscess. It’s up to clients if they want to chat,” she says. “The van is a space that is private and people can come in and receive services that are offered without judgement.”
Thornburgh graduated from Middlebury College with a degree in English and lived in Washington, D.C., where she completed a post-baccalaureate premedical program at Georgetown.
There she volunteered with the organization HIPS, a public health non-profit committed to providing harm reduction skills and supplies to sex workers and drug users in the Washington, D.C. area.
As a HIPS team leader, she headed an overnight outreach group, performing many of the same tasks she does for Vermont Cares. She drove around Washington, D.C. in the HIPs van, meeting up with clients for needle exchanges, distributing safer sex and injection supplies, and holding micro-counseling sessions that covered harm reduction techniques.
After relocating to Vermont for medical school, she felt fortunate to find the mobile van services opportunity at Vermont Cares, which has provided her a way to support and engage the broader community in a meaningful way.
One of the most memorable experiences for Thornburgh happened last fall, when she lost touch with one of her clients who told her he was having health problems.
“I didn’t hear from him for a long time. I didn’t quite realize until the next time he called me what a relief it was to hear from him. Then I got to see him, and I got to hear how his child was doing and how his girlfriend was doing. I really didn’t realize how much I cared about this person—someone that I had only seen a couple of times—until I saw him again,” she says. “He looked good, he was healthy, and he was taking care of himself. The fact that he got better and connected when he needed support was so important. The health issues he had last fall were related to drug use, and we were there for him when he wanted to reconnect and stay healthy.”
Her work as a Schweitzer Fellow has also expanded into other areas of her life as a medical student. Thornburgh joined an opioid use conference planning committee at the Larner College of Medicine and created a medical student communication for first-year UVM medical students about drug use—both of which were strongly informed by her work in the Vermont Cares mobile van service.
“During my clerkship years, I hope to continue to stay involved in initiatives surrounding opioid use at the UVM Medical Center,” she says. “I credit my Schweitzer project with opening doors to such opportunities at UVM.”
The Vermont Cares mobile syringe service will continue and expand in the future as Thornburgh has trained three new volunteers from the Larner College of Medicine.
“This fellowship provided me the support and guidance to grow a project that impacted the health of a population that I care about. It offered me the chance to build my leadership and technical skills, and prepare me for initiatives I would like to implement later in my career,” she says, “It also gave me the opportunity to learn about the unique health needs of underserved rural Vermonters.”