Stritch alumni Jason Reinking and Melissa Ferguson are serving the needs of some of California's most vulnerable populations
By Erinn Connor
When Dr. Jason Reinking (MD ’11) treats one of his patients, he’s not sure when or where he’ll see them next. In fact, he may not see them again at all. That’s because Reinking’s patients are among the homeless residents of Oakland, California—a population estimated at 3,000 to 4,000 people who generally lack access to any type of health care.
Sometimes Reinking is the first doctor they’ve seen in years, or the first they’ve ever seen. As part of the Street Team Outreach Medical Program within the Roots Community Health Center, Reinking provides services and medical care for the chronically homeless.
During his time at the Stritch School of Medicine, Reinking invested much of his time in seeing how medicine worked abroad—from Egypt to Malawi. While still early in his medical career he took an interest in learning how “the haves influence the have nots,” he said.
Today, he is still learning that lesson along the highways of Oakland. His work with people experiencing homelessness earned him Stritch’s Jack MacCarthy Service in Medicine Award and led to the Roots Community Health Center being a finalist for the prestigious Opus Prize, a humanitarian award given by the Opus Foundation in partnership with Catholic universities. The $100,000 award recognizes those working to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems.
Service through health care
Reinking is not alone is his service to those who lack access to medical care. His wife—and fellow Stritch alum—Dr. Melissa Ferguson (MD ’10), is involved in her husband’s work and in her own work treats other underserved populations in Northern California. She is a primary care doctor for Contra Costa County Health Services, which provides care to many people on federal or state health care programs.
“We see our full-time jobs not as ‘jobs,’ but as service to others,” said Ferguson. “For most doctors, but especially those that work with vulnerable populations, there is always something more that can be done for your patients. We both work with only underserved populations, so serving home cooked meals to Jay’s homeless patients for Thanksgiving or going to rallies to advocate for my county patients—to us it is just an extension of our jobs.”
Reinking and Ferguson met as Stritch students and spent many nights studying together and discussing their hopes for the future. Both shared a similar passion for caring for underserved populations, which took them on similar career paths. After graduation, Ferguson completed her residency at Contra Costa Family Medicine and then chose to stay on full-time, eventually taking on a leadership and recruitment role in the residency program.
Reinking first started providing health care for people experiencing homelessness through a Schweitzer Fellowship. The fellowship allowed him to develop a program that helped people who had recently been discharged from Interfaith House (now called The Boulevard), which helps homeless people who are recovering from hospital stays. The program coordinated follow-up medical visits and health education for people while they were still staying with Interfaith House.
The doctor is out
Now his work is what’s known as street medicine—bringing health care to people who are living and sleeping on the streets using walking teams, medical vans, and mobile clinics. Homeless people have many barriers when it comes to getting adequate health care, including no insurance, lack of transportation, poor health education, lack of flexible scheduling, and shame, among others. Doctors going out to where these patients are may be the only way they will ever get any kind of medical care.
Reinking and his fellow outreach team members walk around homeless tent camps and inquire about who needs any medical attention, slowly building trust with patients along the way. “Illness causes and maintains homelessness,” said Reinking. “What we do to help people is mostly by gaining their trust. Whether that’s starting off with a conversation about the Raiders, or reliably showing up at the same time every week, whatever it takes.”
Both Reinking and Ferguson feel that their time at Loyola has shaped the work they are doing today. “A large part of why I chose to come to Stritch was because of the social justice mission,” said Ferguson. “Learning the medical knowledge was obviously important, but just as important was surrounding myself with like-minded individuals committed to serving marginalized populations.”
Reinking often thinks back to the words written across the atrium wall at Stritch, “I was ill and you cared for me,” for inspiration. “We want to care for people first, not necessarily cure them,” he said. “That always stuck with me, and still does in what I’m doing every day out in Oakland.”