On a recent Thursday, Sandeep Sharma took a break from seeing patients in a medical clinic on O Street NW. It was a typical day for him: about a dozen appointments, plus however many patients would just show up, driven by a new ailment or a nagging illness they decided needed attention.
“We’re generally able to handle anybody who walks in the door,” the doctor said.
Sharma is the medical director at So Others Might Eat, a charity that provides meals, housing, drug abuse treatment and workforce development for people experiencing homelessness in the District. It also operates this medical clinic, open every weekday.
“I have to say that, in general, the patients are unbelievably resilient,” Sharma said. “I mean, what they’re going through on a day-to-day basis is hard to imagine for a lot of people.”
Sharma’s an Army brat, born at Walter Reed. He was an accountant before he went to medical school and became a doctor. He spends most of the week in Montgomery County, where his practice is primarily hospital-based. There he treats a very different population: wealthier, older and usually admitted to the hospital for an acute condition. He came to SOME two years ago, eager to serve younger patients with different needs.
Many of the patients at SOME face issues that would be familiar to any general practitioner, but the trying circumstances of their lives bring certain complications. About two-thirds of the patients Sharma sees spend their nights in a homeless shelter.
“I know that if I have somebody who’s living in an apartment who comes in with bronchitis, and I give them antibiotics and tell them to drink some more warm tea and rest, they’re able to do it,” Sharma said. “Whereas if I have someone in a shelter, it can be extremely difficult to get them to. I mean, where can they rest?”
Most shelters require that residents leave in the morning and return in the evening.
Said Sharma: “A lot of my patients, they walk all day long. They’re just walking and getting rest on a bench and things like that.”
Another challenge is his patients’ diet. Diabetes is running rampant through the country, and a big reason is Americans’ diet.
“It’s even worse in the African American population with poor resources, because food that is nutritious and good for diabetics is expensive,” Sharma said.
Poor people are often dependent on what is served at food programs or available from food banks. That can be heavy on bread and pasta.
Sharma said that with his Montgomery County practice, he can give his patients a slap on the wrist and chide them for their poor diet choices.
“I can’t do that here,” he said. “They eat what’s served.”
Another challenge: medications that require refrigeration. Shelters should have refrigerators where residents can store things such as insulin, but Sharma said those meds can be difficult to retrieve when needed.
“The person at the shelter might not understand the importance of ‘This guy needs his insulin right now after he eats lunch,’ ” he said.
Some homeless people carry their insulin with them, Sharma said, even though it gets warm. The SOME clinic will store medication for clients. It also works with pharmacies to package daily medications together so it’s easier for patients to keep track of them.
Sharma and another doctor are at the clinic at least one day a week. Also on the SOME staff are nurse practitioners, dentists, a podiatrist and an ophthalmologist. There are psychiatrists and therapists, too.
A sizable portion of the clients are dealing with mental-health issues. Some of the issues are serious, and some are the result of the difficult lives people without homes lead: the fear, the sense of dislocation. Whenever possible, Sharma and the staff try to steer them to therapists who can offer help.
“Some days they’re going to be open,” Sharma said of his patients. “And some days they’re just going to be in a bad mood. So many patients come here and they’ve already had a fight that morning. It was not necessarily physical, just another verbal altercation that sort of ruined their mood for the morning.”
Whatever their mood, patients know that at SOME, they’ll find someone such as Dr. Sharma, someone who can help.
Last year, there were 8,493 visits to a doctor or dentist at the SOME clinic. All are welcome. No one is turned away. You can help support this vital work by making a donation to SOME through The Washington Post Helping Hand.
To give, visit PostHelpingHand.com and click on “Donate.” To give by mail, make a check payable to “So Others Might Eat,” and send it to SOME, Attn: Helping Hand, 71 O St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20001.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.