In 2019, when Dr. Diane Vines helped create the California State University at San Bernardino’s Nursing Street Medicine program on the Palm Desert campus, she could not have foreseen the huge challenge looming on the horizon.

Fortunately, Dr. Vines and her teams—including students, volunteers and health professionals—were around to offer quality medical care to the homeless and other underserved populations as COVID-19 arrived.

“At the time (before the program started), I was teaching part-time community health nursing and psychiatric mental health nursing for Cal State University at San Bernardino,” Vines said during a recent interview. “We were at a faculty meeting, and one of the development officers came and asked if someone would be willing to work with the UC Riverside School of Medicine family clinic that was at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Palm Springs. (They wanted) someone to collaborate, because there was a donor who was interested in having us do that, and they didn’t want to lose that opportunity. But, nobody would do it.”

“So, since I had worked with the homeless before both in Portland (Ore.) and New York City, I said, ‘Of course I’ll do it.’ It was going to be just for a short term. But I’m still at it.”

The fact that she is still at it has proven to be a big benefit for underserved valley communities during these pandemic days. For example, as the COVID-19 vaccines became available, the CSUSB Nursing Street Medicine teams quickly got to work, administering vaccinations from one end of Coachella Valley to the other.

“We’ve participated in COVID-19 vaccinations all over the place,” Vines said. “We’ve given 950 COVID-19 vaccinations at sites in Palm Springs, Indio, Thermal, Mecca, Desert Hot Springs, Coachella and Cathedral City. Previously, we had done testing as well, but right now, that’s not as important as the vaccinations. … Because we’re well known to the farmworkers and unsheltered populations and are trusted by them, we were able to get more people (to accept the vaccine). It was all vulnerable populations.”

These ongoing efforts just received important financial support in the form of a $26,000 gift from the Health to Hope Clinics. Vine said the money will be used for two things.

“One is to help fund two faculty positions—one in Palm Springs, and one working with the Coachella Valley Volunteers in Medicine,” Vine said. “Their nurse practitioner, Rosa Lucas, is on the grant, and she works with the students who go out with the homeless outreach team on Tuesday evenings. The other is for me to supervise students in Palm Springs. Also, we use (some of the funds) for the student nursing assistants who work with us. Basically, they run the clinic with our supervision.”

Vine’s résumé is beyond impressive. During President George H.W. Bush’s administration, she was one of 14 people selected out of 1,200 applicants to become a White House Fellow. She also worked with then-first lady Barbara Bush to co-found the National Adult Literacy Initiative. Today, she supervises all operations of the Nursing Street Medicine initiative here in the Coachella Valley.

Two CSUSB Nursing Street Medicine team members tend to a member of the Coachella Valley’s unsheltered population. Courtesy of CSUSB Nursing Street Medicine

“On Fridays, we run a nurse clinic at Our Lady of Guadalupe church in Palm Springs, along with a free lunch program (run by) the Well in the Desert,” Vines said. “Halfway through each clinic, the Desert Regional Medical Center’s family-practice medical residents join us, and they see anybody who needs to be seen by a doctor, or needs a prescription, etc. On Tuesday evenings, we still go out with the Coachella Valley Volunteers in Medicine, and on one Saturday per month, we work with the Shepherd of the Valley United Methodist Church in Indio. They have a free breakfast program out by Highway 86 under an overpass out by Spotlight 29 in Coachella. We go out with them.”

Each street medicine team maintains a consistent core of personnel.

“When it’s strictly a nurse clinic, either in Palm Springs or under the overpass in Coachella,” Vines said, “it’s just four to five nursing students and one faculty member. When we go with CVVIM on Tuesday evenings, it’s a full team with a doctor, EMTs, social workers and some student volunteers. Again in January, students will be at the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission doing nurse clinics, and also at one of the Hope Through Housing locations, most likely the one for seniors, Cathedral Palms (in Cathedral City).”

The contributions these street teams make are huge. Between Oct. 1, 2020, and Sept. 30, 2021, the program’s nurses saw 1,655 clients, served 6,363 lunches, distributed 1,296 care packages, gave 446 flu shots and provided wound care to 215 individuals, in addition to offering preventive medical services.

“We do vital signs—blood pressure, pulse, respiration and oxygen saturation, which is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic, because that’s a symptom of the disease, when your oxygen saturation drops,” Vines said. “Also, we do medication management and chronic-disease management, especially diabetes, hypertension and pulmonary issues. We do glucose testing, too, and we help (our patients) monitor their glucose levels and manage their diet. … We make a lot of referrals, and do a lot of education with the homeless as well.”

Between Oct. 1, 2020, and Sept. 30, 2021, the Nursing Street Medicine program’s nurses saw 1,655 clients, served 6,363 lunches, distributed 1,296 care packages, gave 446 flu shots and provided wound care to 215 individuals.

Earlier this year, the Desert Healthcare District approved the purchase of a $340,000 mobile medical clinic—and the Nursing Street Medicine program is one of six organizations given the opportunity to utilize the unit.

“We’re excited about that,” Vines aid. “These organizations have not easily been able to go to underserved communities due to a lack of facilities or basic infrastructure in areas such as mobile home parks, homeless encampments and agricultural fields. We’re hoping we’ll have it in January. The goal with this is to have a regular schedule.”

Vines said she’s optimistic about the future of the CSUSB Nursing Street Medicine program.

“We are proposing to work with the (relatively new) Martha’s Village Access Center in Palm Springs starting as soon as possible,” Vines said.

However, Vines added that the program needs to continue to find as many funding sources as possible.

“We have expanded, and we’ve replicated the program on our San Bernardino campus,” Vines said. “… We’re hoping that the Desert Healthcare Foundation will fund us again. Currently, we have the Health to Hope Clinics money, a grant from the university, the Desert Healthcare Foundation (funding), and Verizon gave us money as well. But after January, we need to locate another grant source. So, we’ll continue. Now, we’ve integrated our community health courses (at the university) into our medical outreach programs, and they use the street medicine concept to do nurse clinics. Now it has a life of its own, because it’s part of the curriculum.”

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Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, after he and his wife Linda moved from Los Angeles to Palm...