PADS doc makes system work for homeless

Ascension said no to hosting a PADS shelter, but a parishioner is now PADS' medical director.

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Dr. Mary Kelly has a voice you could bounce a tennis ball off of. Taut and clipped, it's matched by her bracing, easy frankness and a friendly efficiency that seems to come with the professional territory of other people's sore throats and stuffy noses and routine blood tests.

"I don't do things that other people do, like buy nice clothes and wear makeup," Kelly said last week, chuckling over a morning latte as she described her Oak Park existence: a bustling family practice, an occasional afternoon spent slapping a volleyball with other women, regular worship at Ascension Church, three kids, the "nicest husband in the world," a chinchilla, a dog and two crayfish.

"I keep busy," she said.

On top of all that, Kelly logs a few hundred hours every year as a volunteer doctor for Oak Park's West Suburban PADS program, examining homeless patients from behind a thin screen at the First United Church of Oak Park during the program's weekly clinic. This fall, Kelly agreed to become PADS' medical director.

"Basically, that just means that if they have questions, I try to answer them," said Kelly, whose volunteerism is as unaffected as anything else about her.

For a couple of years now, Kelly, an osteopath whose husband works as an AIDS researcher, has been offering her medical ministrations to the area's homeless at PADS clinics. After the patients arrive at First United and head for the showers, they step behind the screen one by one, where Kelly is waiting with a stethoscope and a cabinet of medicine. PADS physicians can offer minor treatments onsite at each Monday night's clinic, but for more serious ailments, patients are packed off?#34;either on foot or by ambulance, but always with a note?#34;to the hospital, or they're referred elsewhere for later treatment.

"Frequently you see complaints having to do with exposure to the elements," Kelly said. "Frostbite, skin problems, that kind of thing. Other than that, it's mostly colds and coughs and upper respiratory stuff, just like the rest of us get."

Occasionally someone will show up, as one man did recently, with a festering spider bite, but in most ways, Kelly says, the people who seek refuge at PADS' shelter sites are "pretty much like you and me."

"They're just people trying to take care of business," Kelly said. "They're people who got on the slippery slope, and now they're on the rough side of it."

Stirred more by her faith than by her profession, Kelly first became a volunteer for PADS five years ago. Back then, she signed up to take the "dead shift" once a month at a PADS shelter, watching over a room full of slumbering people stretched out on cots.

"Usually it was just an incredible orchestra of snoring and farting," Kelly said. "It was wonderful. ...It was very civilized. People have the attitude that it's an insane asylum at the homeless shelters, that people are going wild. But it's not that at all. A lot of people think that people are homeless because they want to be homeless. But many of them are the working poor; they're not mentally ill. On the graveyard shift, we had to wake people up at 5 a.m. so they could get to work. They're people with jobs just like us."

That's why last week's decision by Ascension Church not to become a shelter site for PADS pains Kelly. One of the more than 200 Ascension parishioners who volunteer at the program, she insisted the congregation is deeply divided over the issue.

"There are lots of people who wanted to do it, and then there are those who are afraid for their children," Kelly said. Before the final decision, Kelly and her children?#34;who volunteer and help cook from time to time at PADS?#34;wrote letters supporting the idea of Ascension opening its doors to the program. "The only really intelligent argument people at Ascension have against it is one that it's not perfect, because there's not permanent shelter. And they're right, but until we get a permanent shelter, this is what we've got. I put the challenge out to my community to find a permanent shelter for PADS."

The issue is all the more agonizing, Kelly said, because it was church teachings that first led her to PADS and that keep her going back.

"The Golden Rule," Kelly said. "You know that any one of those people could be your mother, your brother, your sister, one of your children?#34;because there are always children there. I'm just so damn lucky to have a warm bed. And this is really one of the corporal acts of mercy. It all goes back to when I was confirmed. To me, those are the things that make you a Christian?#34;not telling somebody else whether they can take communion."

In addition, said Kelly, programs like PADS bring a little fairness into homeless people's lives.

"Being homeless makes you more vulnerable when you do have contact with the medical system," Kelly said. "We help with that."

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