“We Shall Never Know All the Good a Simple Smile Can Do.”

By: Ashley McMullen
Quote: Mother Theresa

I remember my first day at HOMES Clinic – I was about three months into med school with hardly a wrinkle on my short white coat. I remember awkwardly going through the motions of the physical exam, trying to keep my hands from shaking as they palpated the skin of my first real patient. I watched a pharmacy student sail through her patient presentation like a champ, and then stammered through my own like I had just learned English the night before. Some of that Sunday I wouldn’t mind forgetting – but one thing that will certainly stick with me is how I felt that morning at the Beacon.

The Beacon is a community center where homeless individuals can receive services like a hot meal and a shower. Each Sunday, HOMES volunteers spend time next door with Beacon patrons before starting clinic. That morning when I took off my coat and sat down with my coffee, the homeless guy next to me, with the strange body odor, became John – the man who was thrown in jail two weeks prior because he was caught sleeping in his car inside a private lot. He was released in the middle of the night with no money, no car, and no one to call. So he made his bed on the concrete just a few blocks from where we were sitting. The homeless lady to my right, with the facial tic, is Sarah – a woman probably around my age. She left home as a teenager to escape repeated sexual abuse and never finished high school. Sarah had her psychiatric meds stolen at the last shelter she resided, so she prefers to stay outside. What I felt then was not so much pity or shock, but a strong sense of solidarity and understanding. These were individuals like me, with unique stories and experiences that shaped the trajectory of their lives.

We often tend to view the needy and medically underserved through this veil of “otherness” – where we focus so much on our differences that we fail to recognize the shared humanity that unites us. Until you can appreciate where a person comes from, it’s difficult to put yourself in their shoes and effectively comprehend their needs. This is the beauty of HOMES Clinic. We learn to listen to and understand people who are different from us, while acknowledging our own biases – this is what makes us better physicians, pharmacists, and healthcare providers. After four years of being a part of HOMES, I have left clinic feeling inspired, annoyed, overwhelmed, and everything in between. Yet I can say with ease, it’s been one of the most influential experiences of my med school education.

A few months ago as I was getting up to leave the Beacon, the gentleman I’d been talking to that morning said to me, “Doc, you don’t know what it means just to have someone smile at you.” I’m not sure where to begin bridging the gap of inequality in our healthcare system, but I suppose a smile is a good place to start.

Ashley recently graduated from UT Houston Medical School. She will be starting residency soon in Internal Medicine/Primary Care at University of California, San Francisco.