Volume 74, Number 48 | April 06 - 12 , 2005

A Salute
to Volunteers

Villager photos by Talisman Brolin

Dr. Robert Adelman gave a foot checkup to Angel Cardenas, 76, at Peter’s Place on Tuesday afternoon. Cardenas was born in Cuba, came to America in 1947 and became a U.S. citizen in 1954. He used to own his own business but has been homeless since 1999. It was his first visit to Peter’s Place, a Chelsea program serving the elderly homeless.

For podiatrist, aiding homeless is a selfless feat

By Josie Garthwaite

Dr. Robert S. Adelman’s work as a podiatrist is hardly glamorous. But then, when has glamour been charitable to the human foot? With nearly 30 years of experience treating aches, wounds, diseases and infections from the ankle down, Dr. Adelman has learned that those most in need of his care are often those least equipped to pay. It’s not a merciless, sky-high heel that plagues these patients, but unforgiving sidewalks, complications with diabetes, environmental stress, old age, poor diet and limited access to fresh socks and properly fitted shoes.

So when Deborah Ellis from The Partnership for the Homeless asked him to volunteer at Peter’s Place, the Brooklyn native found the time to commit. Already dedicating Wednesday mornings to a pro bono podiatry clinic at St. Vincent’s Hospital, Adelman, 56, offered Wednesday afternoons to the Chelsea center — the only one of its kind devoted to assisting New York’s elderly and frail homeless men and women 24 hours a day.

“The Jewish way of life is to be charitable and to be giving,” Dr. Adelman says in a weightier tone than his generally spirited voice. This is a maxim he takes seriously, and one he and his wife, a special education teacher, have done their best to pass on to their two adult children.

An impossible combination of pride and embarrassment flashes across Adelman’s face when he reveals his son is a finance advisor and daughter is in law school. With her summer internship alone, he says, his daughter will make “an unconscionable amount of money.” Still, he adds, “As long as you earn money honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Adelman’s own career path has wound from work as a barker in Coney Island to an ambulance driver to a wholesale jarred herring salesman. He had planned to go to dental school after graduating from York College of CUNY, but found himself roped into podiatry after rushing his future mother-in-law to an emergency appointment with her foot doctor. One of the podiatrists at the clinic had inquired about his profession, heard about the herring and offered Adelman something like an apprenticeship, saying, “I’ll give you a little white jacket and you can see what it’s all about,” Adelman recalls.

When it came time to take his practical exam at the New York College of Podiatric Medicine, Adelman gave his mother-in-law a call. “To get back at her for getting me into this profession, I elected her to be my guinea pig.”

He jokes about being dragged into podiatry, but Adelman has never regretted the move, relishing the daily opportunities to help people.

On his first day at Peter’s Place a few weeks ago, Adelman was surprised and saddened by the scene on W. 23rd St. in the renovated basement of St. Vincent de Paul’s Church, having never set foot in a shelter. People walk by, he said, and “All they see is that big, beautiful church.” Few realize the importance of that building for the survival of many of New York’s seniors.

Recalling the dispiriting image of a grandmotherly figure spending a night there in a straight-back chair, Adelman said, “Here we are in the greatest city in the world, probably the greatest country in the world, and we can’t find a better way for these people to live.”

Peter’s Place — named for The Partnership’s founder, Peter Smith — is one of more than 100 small overnight shelters established in churches and synagogues by The Partnership since 1982. The center where Dr. Adelman volunteers serves more than 100 older adults every day. Clients’ average age is 63, but “street-bound” men and women well into their 80s take advantage of the opportunity to get off the street and maybe even relax without entering a threatening city shelter.

“It’s great the city has it,” Adelman adds, sounding impressed and slightly awed by the center’s accomplishments, mentioning 24-hour front-desk security, social workers, a lawyer, entertainment — an opera singer performed last week — support for finding and keeping permanent housing and a dozen computers with free Web access.

“Not everything boils down to the good ol’ dollar,” he says with a good-natured smile, his cheeks nudging wireless glass frames. While Medicaid and other health insurers cover some patients at Peter’s Place, Adelman knew when Ellis enlisted him that many more would seek his aid without means to pay.

A doctor’s generosity, however, cannot replace adequate health coverage. Eventually, unaffordable prescriptions stand between an impoverished patient and well-being, as Adelman found with his first patient at Peter’s Place. As an English citizen but longtime resident of New York’s streets, the man was ineligible for government assistance but no less in need of medical attention.

Suffering what the erudite Adelman described as a “horrific” fungus infection, the man waited anxiously in a pair of beat-up slippers — his stand-in for winter boots — outside the Peter’s Place exam room that Wednesday afternoon.

Deborah Ellis, director of the program, says a podiatrist has been needed on the center’s team of medical volunteers for years, but Adelman is the first to join up. While the center strives to provide MetroCards when clients are scheduled for job or housing interviews, for most, their feet are the primary mode of transportation, so podiatric woes can be seriously disabling.

Informed of Dr. Adelman’s arrival, the clients at Peter’s Place were genuinely thrilled, Ellis said, and Adelman has not disappointed. According to Ellis, in addition to his medical help, Adelman’s upbeat yet calm personality and positive attitude have helped put clients at ease in otherwise utterly uncomfortable lives.

Upon examination of that first patient, Adelman knew the condition could be easily cured with a prescription. Filling the prescription, however, would be more challenging. Enough medication for about two weeks could be bought for $20 to $30, but it seemed likely a second round of treatment would be necessary — an intimidating prospect for a man with no income and no support network beyond the charity of Peter’s Place.

The center will harness its resources to help the man, but no promises can be made since they rely primarily on donations to cover prescriptions for clients excluded from Medicare and Medicaid. With homelessness on the rise, the center reports its average attendance has increased by 40 percent over the last year.

In doing his part, Adelman doesn’t see himself as anything special. But the hundreds of patients he will see this year, from homebound seniors in sixth-floor walk-ups to homeless folks in their 70s getting their first pair of orthotic shoes on prescription, might say differently. But then, maybe the doctor knows best.

“I don’t think I’m the exception,” he says modestly. “I think I’m the rule.”

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