Building of the Bridge Never Stops: Volunteering on the Van

Martha Nichols
September 1, 1997

The Bridge’s medical van has been staffed by volunteers since its first run on the streets of Boston in 1970. The doctors, nurses, and nurse practitioners who participate schedule themselves, usually volunteering for one night a month. According to Elizabeth Ortiz, the van coordinator (and the only paid staff person), there’s currently a pool of about 60 volunteers, with about half of them always on the monthly schedule.

An MD isn’t always on the van, but there’s generally at least one nurse. Ortiz is also along for the ride five nights a week, acting as “gatekeeper” and sometimes driver. According to her, “Every night is different. There could be anywhere from 4 to 15 patients, but it always feels busy.”

Since the van serves everyone who approaches – street kids and adults, as well as people who just don’t have health insurance – there are occasional problems. Ortiz won’t let people who are obviously high onto van, which means she’s been called every name in the book and “cussed out,” often by homeless adults. Still, if the medical volunteers have seen someone before, even a troublemaker, they may get off the van to treat him or her.

The volunteers are equipped to do pregnancy tests; to administer vaccines, antibiotics, and anti-fungals; and to remove stitches or do butterfly stitches. They often handle dermatological problems, lice, and scabbies. Sometimes patients just want information or a referral; in other cases, kids end up making contact with a Bridge counselor by first approaching the van. In fact, an outreach worker checks in every 10 minutes at each stop.

A big part of Ortiz’s job is recruiting new volunteers – through word of mouth, public service announcements, flyers in medical offices. Bridge screens volunteers by having them fill out an application and doing a reference check. Ortiz then has them come in for an orientation (her goal is to conduct two orientations a month). New recruits ride on the van for an hour with an experienced volunteer. Once through the screening process, they’re asked for a one-year commitment, although most volunteers stay longer.

Nichols, Martha. "Building of the Bridge Never Stops: Volunteering on the Van." Youth Today, Sept/Oct 1997, p. 50.

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