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Caring, Empathy Front And Center At Student-Run Nursing Clinic In Ocean Beach

Evening Edition

Aired 10/3/13 on KPBS News.

A student-run clinic for the homeless in Ocean Beach teaches aspiring nurses human skills they just can't learn in school.

— Nursing schools teach students the latest technical and clinical skills to prepare them for their first job, but what about the human skills a good nurse needs?

That’s where a clinic run by nursing students at Cal State San Marcos comes in.

On a recent Saturday morning at the Episcopalian Church on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, people mill about and wait for the doors to open.

All of them have one thing in common: They’re homeless and came to the clinic for a free meal and medical care.

The director of the church, Nancy Holland, works the crowd meeting some members of the group.

When Holland asked a man his name, the man was taken aback.

“Huh?” he responds.

“What’s your name?” she asks him again.

“Joe," he tells her.

“Hi Joe, I’m Nancy. Nice to meet you. Good to have you here," she says and continues shaking hands and shooting the breeze, as if she were hosting a party.

Holland says these people may be homeless and destitute, but they’re still human beings.

"It’s not our job to judge," she says. "Our job is to love, and care for one another, so we leave the judging up to somebody else."

That’s the attitude in the free medical clinic, too, where all of the care is provided by nursing students from Cal State San Marcos, like Laura Lembi.

Lembi is in her final semester of nursing school. There, she assesses and treats patients, and is also one of the clinic managers.

Lembi says she couldn’t care less that her patients are homeless.

"Who knows how I would be if I was faced with these hardships and maybe mental illness or any number of things that affect people, and make it hard for them to make their way through life," she wonders. "Everyone needs help, when they’re sick. You should just help people because you’re a nurse! That’s what you do and that’s what nursing’s all about."

All of the clinic’s patients have been through hard times; Take 61-year-old Anthony Jones, for example.

"I mean, I’m too old to drive a truck, and I’m too old for construction. So at present, I’m living in a car in OB..."

You don’t even want to hear what he’s been through.

He used to be a captain on Alaskan fishing boats.

And now?

"Because I don’t have an address, I’m living in a vehicle on the streets, OK?," Jones explains. "I have to register as a transient. Every 30 days I have to register. If I do not go down and register, I will be arrested — I’m looking at 32 months in prison for not going down and registering."

As he points to a black dot on his arm, Jones says his only way of making money is to sell his plasma.

For Jones, coming here is like a breath of fresh air.

"They have a bathroom here and they have food. They have a nice meal here and they have clothes. I can buy stuff to shave with — I mean, it’s a very caring, loving place," he says.

On an average day, the nursing students treat up to 60 patients.

Cal State San Marcos’s Mary Baker is their chief instructor.

But she doesn’t do much teaching here; Other than conducting a debrief at the end of the day, Baker lets the students run the show.

She’ll occasionally get on their case, but in a nice way.

"I try not to be too critical with the students," she says. "It’s always about being a positive role model, and some days are better than others.

Baker says working in the clinic helps students hone their clinical skills. They also learn something else that’s just as important.

"One of my goals is that the students see people who are unsheltered as people, that they get to see the whole back-story of how they ended up where they are," she says.

At the end of the day, Baker and her students clean up and put everything away.

Laura Lembi says when she first heard about this clinic, she was a little apprehensive about working with the homeless, but she woke up.

"It’s just the way it is, and you just gotta deal with it, and it’s hard for people," Lembi shrugs. "I’m just glad I can be there to help people out."

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