Most people wouldn’t associate a health care program for people experiencing homelessness with the feelings of serenity, self-care, and self-indulgence that come with spending a morning at a beauty spa. But that’s exactly what Boston Fellow Diana Bartenstein offers once a month at Boston Health for the Homeless Program (BHCHP).
Bartenstein, a student at Tufts University School of Medicine, launched monthly “Spa Days” at BHCHP’s Barbara McInnis House. Spa Day takes place on Saturday mornings during BHCHP’s HER (Health, Empowerment & Resource) Saturday program, an initiative that allows women to drop-in for coffee, movies, healthcare, and other social services. At Bartenstein’s Spa Days, women can also receive relaxing skin treatments such as a face mask, a moisturizing hand treatment, or a foot soak and massage. Spa Days also include an educational component, in which the women learn about a different dermatological topic, such as caring for dry skin or identifying concerning pigmented lesions. Bartenstein’s mentor Dr. Jennifer Tan, BHCHP’s Director of Dermatology and Clinical Instructor in Dermatology at Massachusetts General Hospital, helps guide the program.
There is a natural tendency to prioritize treatment of immediately life-threatening disease over self-care and when Bartenstein first conceptualized her project, she worried that it wouldn’t substantially address the complex psycho-social issues that many women experiencing homelessness face. But having spent time in Dr. Tan’s clinic at BHCHP, Bartenstein was familiar with many common skin conditions that cause high levels of morbidity and distress among patients experiencing homelessness. Moreover, some skin diseases such as melanoma—for which chronic sun-exposure is a risk factor—result in future fatal outcomes. Diana was motivated to reduce the burden of dermatological disease among this population through her educational curriculum and was also hopeful that her unique focus on self-care and personal wellness would yield long-lasting, broad benefits for her constituents. So she moved forward with her project.
Her instincts were confirmed after one of the clients at BHCHP told Bartenstein that she only began wearing makeup after she became homeless, as a way to boost her self-esteem. According to Bartenstein, “she thought that many women in the nearby shelter felt ashamed for circumstances that were out of their control, and that my Spa Days could help them achieve a stronger sense of self-worth. So I proceeded with my project and now have robust data from pre- and post-test surveys showing that this project does effectively promote self-confidence as well as relaxation and dermatological education.”
“By teaching homeless women about various skin conditions and easy ways to keep their skin healthy, I hope to promote increased quality of life in this community,” said Bartenstein. “By pampering women at our Spa Days, I hope to send the message that all people deserve to be happy, healthy, and acknowledged for their unique accomplishments and personal qualities.”
Aside from serving women experiencing homelessness, Bartenstein wants her program to create a long-lasting legacy of medical students who are passionate about social justice, so that “a future generation of doctors is committed to providing high-quality care for all people.”
“I was incredibly proud when one medical student volunteer said that volunteering with Spa Days was the ‘most meaningful service experience’ she had ever participated in,” Bartenstein said. As one who was transformed by her public services experiences as a Harvard College student working with the Phillips Brooks House Association, “the possibility that my project might similarly inspire others in service is more than humbling,” she said.
Bartenstein has been surprised by the enthusiasm that her program has generated among BHCHP staff and volunteers who have helped advertise, set up for, and execute Spa Days.
“We would be lost without them!” she said.
Moreover, word has spread to other BHCHP sites, and they want in on Spa Days.
“We will soon be piloting our programming at family sites in Brighton, Waltham, and Dorchester,” said Bartenstein. “I hope that my project will be able to help many women throughout the Boston area feel more relaxed and confident in the future.”
Serving as a Schweitzer Fellow during her fourth and final year of medical school has helped Bartenstein envision and plan for a medical career dedicated to eliminating healthcare disparities.
“I have been eager to pursue this dream since the start of medical school, but the motivation that I receive from my co-fellows and mentors in the Schweitzer Fellowship has undeniably kept me inspired and accountable,” she said.