Summer 2018

About Face

How a program launched by a Tufts student encourages women experiencing homelessness to remember self-care.

By Laura Ferguson

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Diana Bartenstein, M18, working with women at BHCHP. Photo: Kathleen Dooher

While volunteering at a dermatology clinic at Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP) during her third year at the School of Medicine, Diana Bartenstein, M18, combined her dual passions of skin wellness and public service. Plus, she was able to watch her mentor Jennifer Tan, BHCHP director of dermatology and Massachusetts General Hospital dermatology instructor, interact with patients. “What is really striking is how time stops in her clinic room,” Bartenstein said. “Dr. Tan treats every single patient with the respect and compassion they deserve.”

Inspired by Tan, Bartenstein launched her own skin-health initiative specifically for women experiencing homelessness at BHCHP in August 2017 with funding from an Albert Schweitzer Fellowship and the Tisch College Fund for Civic Engagement.

SPA Day—an acronym for “Skin care and emPowerment for All”—provides facemasks, foot soaks, hand massages, and other treatments. Each monthly pampering session is paired with workshops to teach participants how to identify pigmented lesions, prevent skin cancer, and more.

Bartenstein’s vision for SPA Day is grounded in understanding the psychological and emotional challenges people experiencing homelessness face every day. “Many women have unique barriers to prioritizing their health, happiness, and self-worth, and that prevent them from self-care,” she said. She knew helping them regain self-esteem was pivotal to changing their overall attitudes about their health. To do that, though, Bartenstein had to build trust; that’s where the spa comes in. “During a foot soak, the women relax and open up—and that rapport is a vital first step in them taking charge of their health,” she said. “And the best part is that they are so vocal about how much joy we bring to their lives.”

Haya Raef, M20, working with women at BHCHP. Photo: Kathleen Dooley

As she recently graduated and is now in a one-year internal medicine internship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (her next stop is the Harvard Combined Dermatology Residency Training Program), Bartenstein handed over the SPA Day reins over to Haya Raef, M20, and a Boston University medical student, who will continue the sessions at BHCHP and two affiliated local women’s shelters.

Bartenstein is optimistic the program will continue to gain momentum. As she reported in her Schweitzer Fellowship poster presentation in the spring, SPA Days significantly reduced stress and increased self-confidence in participants. Nine out of ten participants polled said that after attending a SPA Day they were more likely to make a doctor’s appointment. And one hundred percent reported taking better care of their skin and/or feeling better about themselves.

Out of all the survey data, Bartenstein proudly singled out one woman’s response to the question: What is the one thing you will do to keep your skin healthy in the future? “Take care of me, too,” she answered.

“That quote crystallizes the success of our approach,” Bartenstein said. “I’m glad that SPA Days encouraged this woman to recognize the importance of prioritizing herself.”

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