PITTSFIELD — Ilana Steinhauer was living in the Berkshires 14 years ago, after graduating from Wesleyan University, wondering if she should pursue a master’s degree in public health. One day, she walked into Volunteers in Medicine Berkshires in Great Barrington, a nonprofit consortium of health care professionals that provides services to income-eligible, uninsured and underinsured county residents.
Something about it hooked her.
“What is this place?” she remembers thinking.
Steinhauer’s decision-making process was over.
After a short internship at VIM Berkshires, Steinhauer went on to obtain her master’s degree. Eight years later, the native of Westchester County in New York, who lived in the Berkshires in the summers while growing up, returned to the county and VIM Berkshires. She now serves as executive director of the nonprofit, which is funded entirely by donations.
We recently talked with Steinhauer about VIM Berkshires’ mission, why she decided to pursue medicine as a career, and how some of the free clinic’s programs work.
Q: Volunteers in Medicine Berkshires is described on your website as a health care center “with a big heart.” What does that mean?
A: I think when people think about health care centers, you think you’re going to come in and see your doctor or your health care providers with a complaint and then you’re going to get seen, they’re going to diagnose you and you’re going to leave. But, when you walk in to Volunteers in Medicine, you walk into what we like to call a family, and you are looked at as what we call a fellow human being and we hold you like you are that and we treat you like you’re one of our own.
Q: I’m sure a lot of other health care centers say that, too. What makes you different?
A: I think there are a few things. The patient population that we take care of here are people who are uninsured or underinsured. I think that automatically creates a care model that’s different and that needs to be different because our patients might not have health insurance, or they don’t have dental insurance. So, they’re coming in for some reason because they don’t have that.
We have a patient-centered health care model where we have a small paid staff and then we have a whole bunch of volunteers who are here not because this is their job, but this is where they want to be volunteering.
So, when people walk in, they might come in for a medical appointment, but they’re going to be assessed. Do you have dental needs, do you have nutrition needs, do you have needs with food access, or housing or education? Do you need help understanding where to get your medications? Do you need help understanding where to get a test done?
We look at you as an individual and make sure how we can accomplish that plan and how can we do most of it within our walls. ... We also then help you help to navigate the surrounding community.
Q: So, Volunteers in Medicine provides a more well-rounded approach to health care, is that correct?
A: Yes, We have medical. We have dental. We have cardiology. We have GI. We have nutrition. We have optometry. We have behavioral health. We have people who assess for financial needs, or literacy needs or jobs, or legal needs.
We not only manage the actual clinical stuff and dental needs, but we assess all of those other things that affect health.
Q: How did you get involved with Volunteers in Medicine?
A: I actually lived in the Berkshires and was trying to figure out [if] I wanted to go get a master’s degree in public health. I was working at Guido’s and, in Great Barrington, Volunteers in Medicine is right across the street. I walked in one day in 2006 and said, “What is this place?”
I worked as an intern here and got to know the clinic and got to know what they were doing and decided when I was here that I was going to be a nurse practitioner. So, I started taking some prerequisite classes at [Berkshire Community College].
Once I had that all done, I applied for a nurse practitioner program in Boston [at Simmons University]. ... I moved to Boston and got my degree, worked in the Boston area for a few years, had twin boys. When they were 1, I decided that I wanted to move back here. The fates aligned, and there was an opening and I came back to Volunteers in Medicine [in 2014].
Q: You majored in religion as an undergrad at Wesleyan. How did you go from there to medicine?
A: Wesleyan is a real classic liberal arts school. The study of religion isn’t really what religion means, but why do people believe what they believe, what is the history of it, how did it shape the world, how does that all intersect? So, I studied religion because I just really loved what we were learning, and the topics and the cultures that surround people and how all of that influences our decision-making and our history.
And I always had an attraction to public health and working with people. I thought I was probably going to get involved in public health in general and I realized when I was interning then that I really love patient care. I really love being in a room with a patient and connecting on that level and listening and coming up with plans ... just the intimacy of being a provider ... it’s such a privilege to have that time with somebody ... with the religious background I became a good listener.
Q: What do you like about your job?
A: In all honesty, I think I’m one of the luckiest people in Berkshire County. I work in an organization that runs, really, because there’s no profit; this is an organization that is truly mission-based.
I get to learn and gain so much from the patients that we get to work with. I get the privilege of working with the community that, I think, so many people don’t get the opportunity to interact with in the Berkshires, the immigrant community.
I also get the other side of working with volunteers. Some are at the end of their careers, but if you just begin to listen to their story and their history, you get to learn from these experts. ... Because we don’t have the constraints of insurance and don’t have the constraints of huge federal regulations, we can see what the need is of people in the community and really listen to what an intervention or a care model can look like, and we get to implement it.
I get to work with just an amazing staff of people that are committed as well.
Q: Your organization created a nonopioid pain-management program. Why did it start, and how does it work?
A: We all know the opioid epidemic in the Berkshires has been a big issue for many years, and we continue to see a lot of lives lost. But, we also live in a community where a lot of people do alternative pain management with approaches like acupuncture, yoga, mindfulness and massage therapy.
We started with acupuncture before I came in. When I arrived in 2014 and we saw this real increase in the opioid epidemic, we started to realize that our patients were having this huge, huge success with acupuncture as pain management. So, we started to focus on that, and if acupuncture is working, what else could we add in?
We started really researching what the other modalities are. ... We did a pilot program over at the hospital a few years ago. ... A huge percentage of people with chronic pain found relief with an integrative approach. ... Since 2014, I’ve probably written less than a dozen prescriptions for opiates for pain.