When Michael Sutton, a member of the inaugural class of Tulsa Schweitzer Fellows and a student at Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine, first learned about the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, he immediately saw it as a way to help Tulsa’s homeless population address some of their health issues.
“Even though individuals who are homeless are often doing everything in their power to get back on their feet, chronic health problems inhibit their ability to succeed,” Sutton says. He consulted with the Tulsa Day Center for the Homeless, the organization that became his community site, about ways he might be able to assist clients through a Fellowship project.
“They told me that diabetes is a significant health problem in Tulsa’s homeless population and they need monitored care,” Sutton recalls. So he created a project focused on diabetes management and prevention. The program provides clients an outlet to discuss the challenges they face in managing their illness in an atmosphere free of pressure or judgment, encouraging even the smallest steps toward better managing their diabetes and the factors that exacerbate it.
Sutton, for example, recalls a session with a woman who became very emotional as she discussed the difficulty of controlling her diabetes because of her food addiction. “She said eating had negatively impacted her relationships with family and loved ones, but it was one of the few things that brought joy to her life,” he says. “I could tell that she cared greatly about getting control of her habits, but she felt that her situation was hopeless.”
Sutton gently suggested small changes that might be helpful in starting her on a more healthy path.
“I spoke with her about lifestyle modifications and how she does not have to lose the weight overnight,” says Sutton. “We spoke about exercise and nutrition. We discussed that this is a gradual process that will take time, and that I am here to support her every step of the way. As she stood up to leave, she thanked me for listening and for supporting her.”
Sutton believes that doing this type of patient education on issues like obesity, tobacco use, and substance abuse at an early age is the key to containing rising health care costs, which he sees as the most pressing health issue of our time.
“This is one reason why I think the work being done at the Tulsa Day Center for the Homeless is vital,” he says. “One of the center’s goals is to treat the medical problems of the homeless population so that we can reduce visits to hospital emergency departments. Visits to the ER are time-consuming, expensive for our health care system, and often don’t contribute towards changing the patient’s long-term health status.”
Sutton says he hopes to sustain his program and expand it to address health issues in addition to diabetes by recruiting second-year OSU Medical School students willing to assume leadership and management responsibilities next year and beyond. A permanent program for students located at the Tulsa Day Center for the Homeless is a “much-needed clinic setting” that provides a “unique supplement to medical training through hands-on-experience,” Sutton says. “Students would have the opportunity to observe up close the meaningful impact their training can have. As a student, I am able to study obesity and diabetes through books and lectures, but nothing has so far compared to the one-on one experience with my clients.”
In addition to valuable hands-on professional experience, Sutton credits the Schweitzer Fellowship with fostering his personal growth. “From monthly meetings and reflections, to retreats with other Fellows, the program has consistently challenged me to grow and to critically think about issues in ways that I had not previously considered,” he says. “I appreciate that the Fellowship brings together students and health professionals from all different backgrounds who approach issues and problems in many different ways”