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‘I have the best job in the world’; Doctor offers mobile medicine to homeless kids

A little girl laughs in an exam room and then, feeling the prick of a needle, buries her face in her mother’s shoulder and cries as she’s vaccinated against the H1N1 flu strain.

She and 14 other children might not have been unanimously enthusiastic about the flu clinic Dr. Randy Christensen offered recently at the UMOM New Day Shelter. But Darlene Newsom, the shelter’s CEO, said the care Christensen provides youth through the Crews’n Healthmobile program is essential.

“For the most part residents would not be receiving regular health care,” Newsom said. “Their health care would be accessed through emergency room visits.”

It’s a service that Christensen has offered for almost 10 years as the Crews’n Healthmobile program’s medical director. Using a royal blue Winnebago converted into a mobile medical clinic complete with examination rooms and an EKG machine, he and his staff provide free medical care, food, water and blankets to homeless youth up to age 25.

“I have the best job in the world,” Christensen said. I get to come in every day and take care of homeless children and adolescents – literally go right out to the streets and take the medical care right to them.”

That takes the Crews’n Healthmobile to Mill Avenue in Tempe, a school helping the homeless and several homeless shelters around the Valley.

A partnership of Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Children’s Health Fund and Homebase Youth Services, the Crews’n Healthmobile program started in 2000 with Christensen in charge.

He said he chose this path when part of his medical residency rotation had him working in the mid-1990s at Children First Academy, a downtown charter school where nearly all of the 300 students are homeless.

“I made choices along the way, and every choice brought me closer to the streets,” he said. “And when I got here, I wished I would have done it sooner.”

His mobile clinic now stops Friday mornings at the academy, where Principal Jarret Sharp said Christensen is an inspiration to staff and students.

“He doesn’t seek any accolades, and that to me speaks volumes about who he is and what he does,” Sharp said. “He just goes to work and get things done, and he makes an impact on students and parents lives that will last generations, and he’s just very humble and quiet about it.”

In 2008, Crews’n Healthmobile treated about 3,000 patients, providing services ranging from dispensing medication to performing minor surgeries.

On Tuesday and Friday afternoons the team visits UMOM New Day Shelter, a family shelter with a three-month waiting list and 400 residents.

“The families absolutely love him and rely on him,” said Kim Williams, a nurse with Crews’n Healthmobile. “They look to him for the right answers and the best answers, and he gives that to them willingly.”

Michelle Ray met Christensen at UMOM when her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter had an ear infection.

“He cares about his patients, he takes time to explain and to comfort you and if there are any problems or questions he’ll teach you,” she said.

Ray and about 10 other residents at UMOM are pursuing nursing degrees, a career she said is inspired by Christensen and his staff.

To offer support and guidance, the shelter formed a Health Care Career Club. Williams leads the meetings, and Christensen raised enough money to buy five computers for club members to use at school.

“Our mission is to help homeless and underprivileged adults pursue their dreams of being a health care professional,” Williams said. “All of them are making A’s and B’s and one of them was inducted into the nursing honors society.”

From 2007 to 2008, Crews’n Healthmobile saw a 32 percent increase in visits, and Christensen said he expects to see 20 percent more patients this year as families lose homes in the recession.

“It’s growing so fast I don’t think they have accurate numbers,” Christensen said. “We knew there was trouble coming well before 2006. We saw an increase in numbers and demand. All the agencies did. And unfortunately all of them were reducing services.”

Christensen’s operation relies heavily on donations from the community.

With those having dipped during the recession, he’s had to reduce some Crews’n Healthmobile services, such as medication for mental illness. That concerns Christensen because about 40 percent of his patients 16 and older have been diagnosed with a mental illness.

In the future, Christensen wants to establish a full-time clinic at Children First Academy, the downtown school for the homeless, because fixed clinics are less expensive than the Winnebago, which needs frequent maintenance, and make it easier to stay in contact with patients.

Christensen said the best part of his job is the appreciation in the eyes of patients.

“You get to listen to them, and in the end they are so thankful and so happy that you are there,” he said.

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