RANDAL CHRISTENSEN – A committed doc takes his show on the road

Randal ChristensenDr. Randal Christensen takes care of some of the Valley’s 5,000 homeless youth and adolescents who live on the streets. He’s medical director of the Phoenix Children’s Hospital Crews’n Healthmobile, a medical clinic on wheels. Inside are examining rooms, a nurses’ station and the latest medical technology. Christensen and staff counsel and educate youth on self-care, transmitted infections, mental health issues, substance abuse—even on relationships and safety.

Those are the facts. But here’s what tugs at the heart: Randy Christensen welcomes any street kid who shows up—offering a bottle of water, a pat on the back, a kind word. For many, his weekly visits are the only semblance of stability they know.

We talked to Randy on a sweltering afternoon early last fall in Tempe as a group of young patients lined up in the heat, waiting for their turn with the doc.

Who do you serve with this mobile medical office and why is it important?

This is my dream come true! This is where I get to actually go out and take care of children, adolescents and young adults who are homeless or at high risk. I see them on the street, I see them in shelters, I see them all over the city.

What are some of the reasons for a teen or child to be homeless?

More than likely there is some history of mental illness, drug abuse or physical abuse. [When] we see some of the kids, we ask them. Sure enough, we’ll find that mom was an alcoholic, or dad was an abuser, or they have been abusing drugs for many years. The story just kind of keeps repeating.

Do some of these kids run away from home?

Some of them run away from home, some of them are kicked out, some of them are just, you know, sort of left there. Their parents will literally stop, drop them off at a rest area [then] get in the car and drive away. I took care of one kid who had many scars all over his head. He said his parents used to beat him with a baseball bat. Finally, they told him they were sending him to an uncle out here. We tried to find his name and it wasn’t anybody who ever existed. They had just put him on a bus and sent him away.

Who would do that? Do you have a picture in your mind of this child’s parents?

I suspect they had the same thing done to them 20 years or so ago. Like I said, it’s a cycle that just keeps repeating until we take care of it.

So does the Healthmobile serve as a kind of constant in the lives of kids like this?

Exactly. Some of the doctors in our residency program come out here and they want to solve all the problems. But probably one of the best things is just to tell the kids to come back next time. Have them come back next week.

Anything you’ve learned from this kind of medical practice about people in general that you maybe wouldn’t have known before?

You’d almost think that what I’d come away with from here is that we have some terrible things going on in the United States that a lot of people don’t know about. You should look at that in a negative fashion. But the truth is, every time we’ve asked for help, I mean from anybody, they’ve always been there. Once you state your case, and you really stand up, and try to be an advocate for some of these kids, you can really see some positive results.

Tell me about your family.

I have three kids [twins Reed and Janie (6) and Charlotte (3)]. They are just the absolute love of my life. They look at everything with amazement and awe.

Has becoming a dad shaped the way you see your patients?

Yes. You know, before you have kids, you have the ability to think in black and white and really know what’s right and what’s wrong. Afterwards, you just sort of have a new level of understanding. And for me, a new level of patience!

You were featured on a CNN “Heroes” segment last summer. Are you a hero?

You know, they’re always asking what is a hero, and I sit there and say I’m not a hero. I’m not somebody who’s been able to do tremendous things. I think these kids out here, the kids who are really, you know, trying to survive—those are the heroes. I’m just here because I get to play a part in the big scheme of things. For somebody else, it might be donating to a food bank, it might be helping the neighbor across the street. Everybody plays their roles. And this is mine.

This interview was published Jan. 1, 2008 by multimedia journalist Vicki Louk Balint.

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