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The People's M.D.
updated: Mar 15, 2014, 4:00 PM
By Kathleen Reddington
Dr. Jason Prystowsky is celebrating his 39th birthday in the glow of a winter's full moon rising over the
Santa Barbara pier and the refreshing spritz of a much-needed drizzle. In a scene reminiscent of a François
Truffaut film, the pale blues and grays of dwindling daylight cast a misty shadow on the harbor while the
masts of neatly parked sailboats sway in the background.
The scene may have all the trappings of a romantic birthday date, but Pystowksy is actually ringing in his
last year of not being in his 40s at work. His office is a row of card tables set up near the trees in Pershing
Park, where a couple dozen volunteers-doctors, mental-health workers, clinicians and med students-are
Prystowsky, the medical director of Doctors Without Walls, approaches them in a worn, black leather jacket,
motorcycle helmet in hand. This is a no-frills, no-prescription-pad, no-examination-table, come-as-you-
are, leave-healthier type of practice.
"What we do is based on the idea of medicine meeting people where they are at," says Prystowksi. "When
you look at the research on being homeless, it's an independent prospect for death."
Prystowsky, who grew up in Danville, Calif. comes from a family well stocked with doctors. His dad was a
dermatologist. One grandfather was a pediatrician and the other a urologist.
"Growing up in a family of doctors, I knew my medical calling," says Prystowsky.
This path, however, is a little different that his forbearers. The goal of Doctors Without Walls, he says, is to
"provide free medical care to those with the highest need in Santa Barbara."
Street medicine: Dr. Jason Prystowsky offers free medical care to the homeless as the medical director of Doctors Without Walls . (Danielle Angel)
When Prystowsky, who did his undergraduate work at UC Santa Barbara, finished medical school at
Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, he focused on public health as a fellow at Emory
University and chief emergency medicine resident at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. Then, he took his
practice to places that needed it most.
"I worked all over the world and also on Native American reservations in the U.S.," he says. "My career for
10 years was working with underserved populations displaced by war and poverty. I worked with Doctors
Without Borders in Sudan for one year. I spent a year in the Middle East in Palestinian territory. I did Indian
Health Services for the Navajo reservation near Chinle, Ariz. and Rosebud, S.D."
Prystowsky came to Santa Barbara for a woman four years ago and ended up working full-time as an
emergency room doc at Cottage Hospital in Goleta, Santa Ynez and Santa Barbara.
"Doctors Without Walls is my nighttime gig, he says, his brown eyes appearing both weary and brimming
with enthusiasm. "The girl is now nowhere to be seen," he adds, with a laugh.
Here, Prystowsky met Dr. Mimi Doohan, the founding medical director of Santa Barbara's Doctors Without
Walls. Ironically, while Prystowsky was ready to settle down from the peripatetic life of globe-trotting,
trouble-spot practitioner, Doohan was looking to take up the life he was leaving behind.
"Her kids were all grown up and it was time for her to have a humanitarian adventure," says Prystowksy.
"She's now doing work overseas and I've taken the keys to the car here, locally."
Prystowsky saw the streets of Santa Barbara as an opportunity.
"I needed to find something locally to get this itch scratched. I needed to serve these underserved, poor
populations," he says. "Getting back to Santa Barbara where I did my undergraduate work and working as
the medical director of Doctors Without Walls has provided me with such a rich, warm, fulfilling
Almost on cue, there's a commotion near the band shell. Someone is screaming. Soon, one of Prystowky's
student volunteers, a tall kid with a Huck Finn look and a country gait, emerges. His face and shirt are
covered in soup, a misfortune he bears stoically.
Within an instant, a pretty, brown-eyed social worker approaches to tell the story. "Jeff got head-butted
and he-," she says, nodding toward a homeless man who is yelling, "threw soup on his face.
"It might be time to call a Code Gray." Code Gray is the order to pack up the street clinic and go home.
Prystowsky pauses as a police patrol car quietly rolls into the park.
"Don't you f-ing talk to me," the homeless man slurs angrily at the volunteer clinic workers, nearly falling
down. "You all f-ing come with me and lay down on that cold cement floor."
A couple of cops cautiously approach the man. One is wearing blue gloves. "I ain't doing nothing wrong,"
the man says, retreating. With a little bargaining, the police officers manage to coax the man into their
"He'd been doing so well," says the social worker, frowning. "He's one of the most cultured men in Santa
Barbara. He goes to the Music Center. He is usually calm. He must have gotten into something-pills or
Doctors Without Walls sets up camp in Isla Vista on Monday nights at Saint Mark’s Catholic Church, Pershing Park on Wednesday nights and Alameda Park
on Thursday nights. (Jennifer Hirsohn)
Doctors Without Walls began nine years ago. Doohan started following Santa Barbara's indigent and
houseless population into various parks, setting up mobile clinics and providing meals. The program is in
Isla Vista on Monday nights at Saint Mark's Catholic Church, Pershing Park on Wednesday nights and
Alameda Park on Thursday nights.
"By always being here, we begin to establish a trust with this population, who is incredibly weary of
institutions," says Prystowsky. "We have some patients who are diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia who
come to us and say, ‘You know, I've been watching you for the last six months and I now believe you are
not part of the CIA. I've wanted to tell you about these sores that I've never spoken to a doctor about
before.' That's a huge breakthrough. That's providing healthcare to someone who is high risk and may
never have sought medical help."
Prystowsky says the most common things Doctors Without Walls treats are skin infections, respiratory
infections, muscular skeletal injuries and wounds. This population is particularly susceptible to foot issues
and wound infections related to poor hygiene.
Excerpt provided by Mission & State. Read the full story on MissionAndState.org
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