"I'm so nervous," said Lee Goodson, a 48-year-old recovering drug addict who was getting his blood pressure taken by a Towson University student, one of about a dozen nurses-to-be who regularly treat Goodson and other residents of the Helping Up Mission in Baltimore.
"Try to keep your arm still," instructed student Jolynn Hemling during a recent visit to the mission. The final reading, 130/80, is a "smidge high," she said.
Goodson said he had just taken a health test - one requiring him to answer questions about oral cancer and flossing - and that he's anxious. His blood pressure is usually lower.
"Well, it could be that you're stressed," said Hemling, who sent Goodson on his way with a reassuring smile and a small card he can put in his wallet after recording his blood pressure.
Goodson and Hemling met recently when the students hosted a health fair at the mission. It was a great learning experience for both. He gained confidence by interacting with someone from outside his shelter, and she learned how to work with patients whose lives have been troubled.
"When I first came to the shelter, I couldn't hold a conversation," Goodson said. "My life was chaotic, and my spirit had been shattered."
Goodson said he is grateful for the medical attention.
"I think they are beautiful," he said of the nursing students, who come to the Helping Up Mission in the 1000 block of E. Baltimore St. at least twice monthly.
Towson students have been working with mission residents since 2003, after their instructor, Mary Lashley, met some of the men at her church and was moved by their stories. Lashley said she knew the students in her community nursing course would benefit from interaction with the men, most of whom have struggled with drug or alcohol addiction.
"What I see happening is that the students' stereotypes of what an addict is [are] shattered," said Lashley. "They really get to know the guys and that they are just like any one of us."
The Helping Up Mission serves about 275 men a year, said the Rev. Keith Daye, the facility's pastoral counselor. It is one of the largest residential addiction treatment programs in the city, he said. Residents receive in-patient treatment, counseling, job training and work opportunities for up to a year. There is also a transitional shelter where men can live for up to two years to complete the recovery process. The mission is set to expand in the coming months to serve up to 420 men.
Daye, who attended the health fair, said the visits by nursing students help recovering addicts to relearn how to interact with professionals and people without addictions. He said that keeping medical and dental appointments also gives them structure.
Of his visit with the nursing students, mission resident Juan Hinton said he felt "blessed."
"You don't feel that they invite you down to talk with them because they have to, it's in their spirit," said Hinton, 47, who has been at the shelter for about a month. "You come away feeling warm."
Lashley's students provide health education, counseling and screenings for diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. And since 2005, they have teamed up with students at the University of Maryland Dental School and their instructors to provide oral health services, including dentures and oral cancer screenings.
Dentures, according to Lashley, are in high demand among former addicts, in part because many went years without regular dental care. Also, drug abuse can contribute to tooth decay, she said. Men who receive dentures report feeling more confident, and this often helps them to move forward with training and job searches.
"I'm not aware of a similar program in Baltimore," Lashley said, referring to the free dentures that mission members receive.
Besides the volunteer services provided by students, their instructors and a handful of medical and dental professionals, the program is supported by about $140,000 in grants.
"We are hoping that we can sustain the program for as long as possible," Lashley said. "It really has inspired students to work with the homeless."