February 8, 2008

‘A real sense of what would Jesus do’

Registered nurse Connie Herr looks at her watch to track the heart rate of a patient seeking care through the Gennesaret Free Clinics, a volunteer organization started by Dr. Jim Trippi, a member of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish of Indianapolis. (Submitted photo)

Registered nurse Connie Henn looks at her watch to track the heart rate of a patient seeking care through the Gennesaret Free Clinics, a volunteer organization started by Dr. Jim Trippi, a member of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish of Indianapolis. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

An amused smile crosses the face of Dr. Jim Trippi as he shares the story of how one of the most remarkable faith-filled medical efforts to help the poor and the homeless began on a cold February night 20 years ago.

On that night, Trippi walked into an Indianapolis church where 80 homeless people slept in the pews overnight to get refuge from the biting wind and the frigid temperatures.

Accompanied by a nurse and a clerk, and carrying a steamer trunk filled with medical samples, Trippi entered the church with a belief that he could make a small difference—a belief that had been formed a few weeks earlier as he volunteered at the Cathedral Kitchen, a ministry of SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral Parish in Indianapolis.

While Trippi served food and drink to the poor and the homeless at the soup kitchen, the member of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Indianapolis was struck by the obvious health problems and medical needs of the people. So Trippi decided to use his skills as a doctor to help, which led him to the church where homeless people slept in the pews.

There was just one problem. On that first night in the church, Trippi announced to the homeless people that he was available to examine them and treat them for free. They returned his look of anticipation with their own looks of doubt and suspicion. Still, after an awkward length of time, one man left his pew to see Trippi in the church’s nursery. When he returned, the other people in the pews looked at him for a sign of what had happened.

The man just shrugged his shoulders, Trippi recalls, which seemed to be a sign that there wasn’t anything to worry about because 10 other people headed to the nursery.

It’s a story that still makes Trippi smile and laugh softly, the story of the start of the Gennesaret Free Clinics—a volunteer, grassroots health care effort in Indianapolis that now has about 12,000 encounters each year with poor and homeless men, women and children.

The healing touch

In 20 years, the stories of the Gennesaret Free Clinics have increased dramatically, but they all still flow from the story of faith of how the program’s name was chosen.

Trippi was reading the New Testament when he came across a passage from the Gospel of Mark (Mk 6:53-56) describing Christ’s arrival by boat at a place called Gennesaret.

“People lined up their ill relatives on the pathway so the fringe of Christ’s robe could touch them,” Trippi says. “Their faith was such that they believed people would be healed if the fringe of his robe touched them. And now we’re reaching out to the fringe of society. It made sense to use something from Scripture, that this is a higher calling. This is an endeavor out of our spiritual lives. We’re reaching out to them as health care providers, and we’re both going to be healed by this.”

In the program’s 20 years of providing medical and dental care—about $1 million of service is given free each year, Trippi says—more than 2,000 people have volunteered as the services and the locations for help have increased across the city.

Medical offices are located in six homeless shelters, a food pantry and the clinic’s administrative offices. There are also a mobile unit, two dental offices and a Health Recovery Program that provides housing and support for homeless men who are recovering after being treated at hospitals.

The Health Recovery Program offers one of Gennesaret’s best stories, courtesy of a man who was a volunteer for another organization devoted to helping people.

When the man recognized someone associated with the Health Recovery Program, he said, “Do you remember me? I used to stay at the Health Recovery Program. That time helped me get my life back together again. You don’t know how much that meant to me. I was homeless, and now I am helping others. I just wanted to let you know I appreciate it.”

Other times, the thanks are expressed in ways that don’t include words.

Susan Berger is a dental hygienist who helps at Gennesaret. She has seen women come to the dental clinic embarrassed by the condition of their teeth. When their smiles and their teeth are repaired, they often react with tears.

“It’s very rewarding,” Berger says. “The people are very appreciative. I hope I’m making a difference. I try very hard.”

‘A real sense of what would Jesus do’

Sometimes, the volunteers try so hard they give the clothes off their backs and even the socks from their feet.

Jeanne Van Tyle recalls witnessing the sock exchange when she volunteered on Gennesaret’s mobile van clinic that travels throughout the city to serve the homeless on the streets.

“There was a patient who had no socks,” Van Tyle remembers. “I saw the physician take off his socks, air them out and give them to the homeless man, who had sores on his feet. He was grateful.”

After that experience, Van Tyle returned to her job as a professor of pharmacy at Butler University in Indianapolis. She asked her students to bring any socks they no longer used to the next class. Within a few days, she had 200 pairs. Then she invited her students to volunteer at the clinics, hoping the experience would connect the students to the underserved and uninsured people they would meet and help.

“They began to open their hearts to the patients,” says Van Tyle, a member of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Indianapolis.

Her heart has also been opened since she began volunteering for Gennesaret in 2002.

“It’s why I went into health care in the beginning. I get to help people, share my knowledge and know they’re doing better,” she says. “I’m not dealing with insurance companies and handling money. I’m making a difference. The patients will put their medicine in their bags, reach across and touch you, and say, ‘God bless you.’

“I think it builds a real sense of what would Jesus do. It makes you think about yourself and your life and all the blessings you have. It makes you want to do more.”

From heartbreak to inspiration

As the program has grown and evolved over two decades, the challenge has been to keep the focus on the healing touch.

As a cardiologist, Trippi has dedicated his medical practice to taking care of patients with heart problems. As the founder of the Gennesaret Free Clinics, he has seen too often the human heart near its breaking point.

“People can be pretty lonely,” he says. “Sometimes they feel no one cares about them and whether they’re alive or dead.”

He recalls a medical visit from a young man in his late teens, a former prison inmate who had run out of the medicine he routinely received while he was in jail, medicine he could no longer afford.

“I asked a lot of questions and made some small talk with him,” Trippi recalls. “After I gave him the medicine, he came back a minute later and asked if he was going to be OK. I gave him a pat on the back and told him I thought he was going to make it. I wished him well.”

That approach is part of the reason that the Gennesaret clinics received national recognition in the 1990s from former President George H.W. Bush as part of his“Point of Light” program.

Still, after 20 years of leading Gennesaret, Trippi is bittersweet about celebrating this landmark anniversary.

“Early on, we hoped this wouldn’t be necessary after a while,” Trippi says. “There wouldn’t be these heartbreaking stories. It would be taken care of. But the melancholy gives way to a good feeling that you’ve been able to do some­thing. It’s satisfying. Twenty years later, every encounter, every interaction, has been a pleasure.”

That feeling leads to one last story from the Gennesaret files.

It’s the story of a homeless man who nearly died, a man who came to the Health Recovery Program after his hospitalization.

After he recovered, he was able to live on his own in an apartment building. There, one day, he heard someone frantically knocking on different apartment doors on his floor.

Looking through the peephole of his door, he saw a man holding a baby. His initial reaction was to follow the lead of his neighbors and keep his door closed. Instead, he opened the door as the man begged to use his phone. He saw that the baby was struggling to breath.

After the paramedics arrived to help the baby, one of the emergency workers told the father that his child likely wouldn’t have survived if he hadn’t called for help.

Trippi marvels at how one life touches another, and how one act of faith can lead to another.

“In so many ways, it’s been a thing of miracles, a real heart-opening thing for me,” Trippi says. “It’s been a labor of love my whole life.”

(To learn more about Gennesaret Free Clinics, log on to www.gennesaret.org.) †

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