RWJF Community Health Leader Named a CNN "Hero"

Roseanna Means has started a nonprofit that gives homeless women and children in Boston love, acceptance—and free medical care.

    • January 25, 2011

Only months after being named a 2010 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Community Health Leader, Roseanna Means, M.D., is getting even more national recognition for her work to help some of the most vulnerable people in her community. Means has been named a CNN “Hero” for providing free health care services to homeless women in Boston.

Inspired by her time working at a refugee camp in Cambodia, Means started the nonprofit Women of Means nearly ten years ago to serve the “refugees” of Boston—displaced, homeless women. “They worry about where to sleep, they worry about their safety… and they worry about getting food,” she said in an interview. “The last thing I think they should be worrying about is how to negotiate a very complex and confusing health care system.”

Means’ team of nine nurses and 17 volunteer doctors provide free primary care services to vulnerable women at various women’s shelters in the community. They bring their own supplies and work in whatever extra space is available to them—often in closets, hallways or under stairwells. In addition to basic check-ups, they can perform diagnostic tests on-site, including checking blood sugar, testing for strep throat and providing pregnancy tests. The medical team also provides over-the-counter supplies, like pain relievers and band aids, free of charge. When there is a need, they connect women to other care providers and resources.

Years ago, Means met a woman at the shelter who was, at first, leery of her help. After a routine examination, Means suspected that what the patient had been told was a heart murmur was something else. Means convinced the woman to come to her office— more than an hour away on public transportation—for a more thorough exam, and then referred her to a cardiologist. There was, in fact, a misdiagnosis. The patient actually had a life threatening heart condition, and needed surgery to implant a defibrillator.

“The entire process of diagnosing and treating her took a year-and-a-half,” Means said. “I had no way to get in touch with her, so I had to wait until I ran into her at the shelter.” The patient eventually had the surgery and is doing well today.

Contacting patients is just one of the many challenges associated with treating this population, Means says. Patients often have chronic conditions, like diabetes or hypertension, and sometimes they have psychiatric issues. Means and her team members work to find each patient the care and treatment they need.

Women of Means is also working to educate health care providers. The organization runs an interdisciplinary education program to teach nursing students, medical students and medical residents about the unique needs of the homeless population. Students spend a month working in the field, alongside the medical team in an environment very different from a hospital setting—and getting experiences their traditional education and training would not provide.

Students see patients on a first-come, first-served basis, and there is no time limit to the appointments. They also learn the power of giving back to the community, Means says, working alongside doctors, many of whom often have volunteered for years.

“This is not just about a checkup or doling out antibiotics for an infection, but it’s about giving these women the acceptance—and love—they deserve,” Means told CNN. “It’s a process. It takes a long time. But we don’t put any time limits on it because we know that in some cases, it’s literally life-saving.”

Other 2010 Community Health Leaders are: Josephine Mercado, J.D., founder, Hispanic Health Initiatives, Inc., Casselberry, Fla.; Susan Rodriguez, president and founding director, Sisterhood Mobilized for AIDS/HIV Research and Treatment (SMART), New York; Andru Ziwasimon-Zeller, M.D., founder, Casa de Salud Medical Office, Albuquerque, N.M.; Judy Berry, founder, Lakeview Ranch Dementia Care Foundation, Darwin, Minn.; Dana Harvey, M.S., executive director, Mandela MarketPlace, Oakland, Calif.; Joe Hollendoner, M.S.W., chief program officer, Howard Brown Health Center, Chicago; Fran Rooker, co-founder and board member, Brain Injury Services of Southwest Virginia, Roanoke, Va.; The Jason Foundation, Radford, Va.; Shira Shavit, M.D., director, Transitions Clinic, San Francisco; and Kris Volcheck, D.D.S., M.B.A., dental director, Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS) Dental Clinic for the Homeless, Phoenix.

Most Requested