…treating wounds you can see, and some you can’t
Michael Sean Wright and Wound Walk OC are about urging homeless to get proper health care.
PUBLISHED: August 17, 2020
Michael Sean Wright’s gray beach wagon is packed with plenty of essentials — homemade sandwiches, Gatorades, snack bars.
And Wright is dressed for plenty of action — blue rubber gloves stretched over his hands, not one but two masks pulled over his mouth and nose, a disposable protective gown cinched at his waist.
What’s more, as the appropriately dressed Wright pulls his well-stocked wagon into yet another city park, plenty of tools dangle from his belt — a lancet, a medic’s kit with a tourniquet, and (in case he meets an angry dog) pepper spray.
Wright isn’t looking to commune with nature. The one-time emergency medical technician is on one of his regular excursions — on this night it’s Santa Ana’s Santiago Park — to tend to the cuts, scrapes, open sores, insect bites, and needle marks that puncture the skin of homeless people everywhere.
Other ailments aren’t as obvious. But Wright knows to look.
“Underneath everyone’s shirt or pant leg,” he says, “there’s a wound.”
Santa Ana is his regular Tuesday evening “Wound Walk,” the phrase, in fact, emblazoned on his neon orange ball cap. But over the next few days he’ll visit people who live outdoors in Anaheim, Fullerton, and Huntington Beach, too. On each trip he typically helps 25 to 40 people, handing out care packages to anyone who wants one. Out of that number, about a dozen might allow him to wash and dress their wounds.
Wright launched Wound Walk OC about four years ago, after he began what he calls his Good Samaritan work among homeless street people. At the time he’d recently moved from Dana Point to Santa Ana, the city with the county’s largest homeless population. At first, he brought sandwiches, water and a kind word to people crashed on the sidewalks. Medical instincts kicked in at the sight of festering wounds.
“Would you like me to wash that?”
More often than not, the answer to a question nobody else bothers to ask is, “Yes.”
Typically, his next step is to pull a shield over his masked face and reach into an orange duffel bag he calls his “trauma-centric bag.” That’s where he’ll find some other tools of his mission: antibacterial gauze pads, surgical tape, a dry powder that makes a saline paste to draw out infection, and other medical supplies.
But even when they decline any close contact, the sandwich Wright offers week after week, along with a care package that holds toothbrush kits, cloth masks, socks, water, and other essentials, can nudge someone toward accepting further help.
Wright earns trust.
Donnell Smith, 34, isn’t sure how long he’s been staying in the park, but suggests it could be since 2016. When Wright pulls up with his wagon, Smith is by himself at a picnic table near the locked Park Santiago Log Cabin.
“Any wounds this week?” Wright asks. Smith holds out his right thumb to display a blister.
“You don’t want that to open,” Wright says. Then, leaning in closer, he adds: “Let me see … We’re going to wound wash that.”
Smith’s clothes are dusty and his hair uncombed. Wright is not put off by anyone’s appearance or condition.
“He cleaned my toes,” Smith says, referring to Wright on a previous Wound Walk visit. No one else comes by to offer any care, Smith adds, so he appreciates the attention.
“It makes me feel protected.”
Before Wright continues his westward loop towards Main Street, he gives Smith a sealed inhaler of NARCAN Nasal Spray, an FDA-approved formulation of naloxone. In an emergency, a shot of naloxone up the nose can counteract an opioid overdose.
Wound Walk brigade
Wright has a job. He produces documentaries and videos about emerging technologies and social justice issues. So the Wound Walks take place in the evening, a time when Wright says the homeless people he hopes to reach are “more relaxed.”
Typically, Wright is accompanied by a pair of volunteers. Before COVID-19, the small entourage included UC Irvine medical students. On this night, Wright is solo when he’s met near the park, outside Polly’s Pies on Main Street, by the Bastur family from Irvine. They drop off 50 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, product of an Irvine moms club’s Wound Walk sandwich brigade.
Nashita Bastur and her daughters, Kashmira, 13, and Zara, 12, spent the afternoon making the sandwiches.
“We’re happy to do this once a month if you like,” Nashita Bastur says as her husband, Cyrus Bastur, hands Wright a big cardboard box filled with sandwiches and a bag of oranges.
Wright, who is in his 50s, takes a selfie with the Basturs before they depart around 6 p.m. He knows the value of documenting the work of Wound Walk, captured in photos, video and other information that he posts at woundwalk.org and on Facebook.
Originally from a suburb outside Chicago, Wright had once wanted to be a doctor but couldn’t afford med school. He worked for awhile as an EMT and stints as a veterinarian’s assistant and as a volunteer firefighter. He knows how to clean and dress a wound, to recognize the signs and stages of infection.
Wright does not diagnose. Instead, he encourages people to seek medical care at nearby community clinics. He tells them they could sign up for Medi-Cal coverage through Cal Optima, the county’s health care provider for the indigent. He’ll even meet them at a clinic or help with an application if needed.
Wound Walk OC is a member of the Street Medicine Institute, an organization that provides guidance and support to programs around the nation and in other countries that bring medical care, mental health outreach and social services to marginalized people wherever they are staying, whether that’s at street encampments, in parks, beneath a freeway underpass, down an alley.
Wright knows there is opposition to what he does. He’s heard residents who live along his Wound Walk routes shout pejoratives at him for what they view as his role in helping people to live on the streets in their communities. Santiago Park has been a sore spot for years, constantly drawing complaints about loud parties, fights, trash, drug activity, thievery and other crimes. In a seemingly endless cycle, Santa Ana Police will come to clear the encampments, issue citations and give people the option of going to a shelter.
Although Wright has had success in connecting homeless military veterans to services that can help them find housing, he says he’s not working to nudge people into a shelter: “Our focus,” he says, “is on the wound.”
It takes persistence and commitment to convince people to get medical help, even when they’re hurting. Wright says they offer a lot of reasons. Fear is one. Embarrassment is another; they feel bad about how they look and smell when they go to the emergency room or a doctor’s office. Or they lack health care. Or they’re addicts.
When he can overcome those hurdles, Wright directs them to clinics run by AltaMed Health Services or the nonprofit Share Our Selves — two care providers that, in Wright’s view, treat homeless people with dignity.
The quiet conversations that happen while Wright is dressing their wounds is when connections are made.
“The beauty of this is the human exchange in that moment. People feel that relief,” Wright explains.
“And then they’ll bring their friends.”
Kathryn “Kat” R. La Pointe is beneath a tree, off the path of the Santiago Creek Bike Trail, bent at the waist. Her wavy shoulder length hair cascades forward as Wright showers her head with a steady stream of warm water and saline solution that he pumps out of a one-gallon tank. La Pointe’s scalp is itchy from bug bites and scratches.
“It feels good,” says La Pointe, who washes in restroom sinks. Then, referencing the help she’s getting from Wright, she adds: “That’s a big deal to me because I don’t have regular showers.”
She asks him if he can also rinse the bottom of her feet. She has sores in her mouth, too, she says: “I’ll rinse the inside of my mouth with iodine.”
“Oh, no, no, no,” Wright warns. “Don’t do that.”
When Wright rinsed La Pointe’s arms with the saline solution he saw the purplish scars, bumps and puncture wounds that pockmark her skin like a scabby mountain range, from her hands to her shoulders. And after he wiped her left arm with an orange-ish betadine antiseptic, he carefully wound a gauze bandage between her left wrist and elbow.
“I like that you come around and take care of me,” La Pointe says.
She’s been tended to by Wright on previous visits, but hasn’t seen him for about a month.
“I feel like I know you, Mike.”
After about 20 minutes with La Pointe, Wright sprays himself with Lysol disinfectant. He is worried about coronavirus and the staph infection known as MRSA, a common ailment among homeless people who have skin injuries that become infected.
He rinses his still-gloved hands with iodine before pulling a second pair of gloves over the first.
“We never remove our PPE,” Wright explains. “We just add another layer.”
‘Potter’ fans are in
Wound Walk OC is not yet an authorized charity, and donations Wright uses to buy supplies are sponsored by the nonprofit Orange County Poverty Alleviation Coalition. There’s also a Wound Walk OC page on Amazon for direct purchases from a wish list that includes alcohol prep, arm slings, cough drops, instant cold packs, protective coveralls, Gatorade, peanut butter and crew socks.
Wright has drawn support from others, too; the Democratic Clubs chapters in Orange County and the homeless advocacy group Invisible People. He also gets help from the “Harry Potter”-influenced meet-up, Hogsmeade Weekenders, and there’s a “thank you” on the Wound Walk website that’s directed to the office of former county supervisor turned state Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, for a donation of face masks.
Annie Wright (no relation), vice chair for the Democratic Club of Orange County, says Wright is “trying to encourage people to replicate this in their community.”
She adds: “We need to promote the innovative ways that activists and volunteers are trying to solve this crisis.”
Wright spends about two hours helping people in Santiago Park.
When a red-faced man on a bicycle asks him for a care kit, Wright obliges, but notes that the man is spending too much time in the sun and needs to hydrate more.
As he attends to another man, with a limp, Wright gets down on one knee to remove shoe and sock and wrap a cold compress around the man’s leg. He tells him about a clinic where he can get an accurate diagnosis; “Tomorrow, you go get it X-rayed.”
Before heading back to his car, parked at Polly’s Pies, Wright makes a last stop, in the shade of an office building near the park. It’s where he talks with a man about a 3-inch gash on his arm that Wright previously cleaned and tried to close with a butterfly suture kit. The man said he’d been attacked in the park by someone with a machete and Wright urged him to visit a clinic. He didn’t.
But, as he inspects it now, Wright sees the wound looks to be healing.
Wright isn’t done for the night. He will go to Hart Park in Orange, to look for two men, “Batman” and “Cowboy.” He’s tried to help one with his severe skin infection and the other with a sprained ankle. He also tried — and failed — to get both to a clinic.
Wright won’t give up. He’s convinced he can break through.
“If I can have three conversations with them, I can connect them to services.”