Susan Ristow, a retired doctor, was waiting for a medical appointment two years ago when she noticed a woman in pain having trouble filling out paperwork in the lobby of a health care center.
Ristow of Durango offered the woman assistance and later learned the woman was homeless. The woman, a maid at a local motel, was struggling at work because of pain in her arm stemming from an old wrist injury.
“She wanted to continue in her job, but she couldn’t do her work,” Ristow said.
Ristow advised the woman about how to relate her medical history to the doctor. The woman emerged from her appointment smiling and wearing an elaborate splint, Ristow said.
“You can do a lot if you help a person to understand their own story,” she said.
The chance encounter inspired Ristow to start Volunteer Physician Advocacy Service, an outreach program that she expects will help homeless residents understand medical services and insurance available to them and how to communicate with medical professionals, among other services.
The new service is a program of Community Compassion Outreach, a Durango nonprofit. The nonprofit is focused on helping families and individuals survive and exit homelessness.
Dr. John Ragsdale, a clinical psychologist, also plans to help develop the new advocacy service, said Donna Mae Baukat, executive director of the nonprofit.
The first step for the new service will be to survey homeless residents about their access to health care and some of the challenges that prevent them from going to the doctor, such as transportation and access to insurance, she said.
The new advocacy services will be built around survey results that will be gathered in coming weeks, she said.
Ristow said she expects to work closely with Axis Health System. Axis runs a health care program for the homeless and does medical outreach twice a week at the Durango Community Shelter and twice a week at Manna soup kitchen, said Sarada Leavenworth, a spokeswoman for Axis.
Providing additional housing for homeless residents is one of the big steps the community could take to improve the health of homeless residents, because homes provide a space to cook and maintain personal hygiene. Homes also provide stability to improve someone’s emotional state, she said.
“What I would do is kind of a Band-Aid, a patch, to get them over this very difficult situation,” Ristow said.
Physicians, working and retired, who are interested in helping with the new advocacy service may contact Ristow at [email protected]