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Oregon Health and Sciences University nursing students Ashley Higinbotham and Asish Kumar listen as their homeless clients share stories about their day as their feet are soaked and washed at the First United Methodist Church in Ashland. Photo by Denise Baratta

Putting their best foot-washing forward

Local nursing students are learning to wash feet. If this doesn’t sound like traditional medicine, it’s not.

The students are washing and massaging the feet of homeless people for about 20 minutes every Tuesday at First United Methodist Church of Ashland.

Students are learning to confront and overcome the stigma society places on the homeless, by making eye contact with them, placing their head below the heads of the homeless so students are looking up at them, learning their names and engaging them in conversation, then sending them on their way with new socks.

That’s how Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) nursing teacher Rachel Richmond describes the practice, which she lifted from Boston Health Care for the Homeless and, with grants from AllCare and OHSU, started it here, where, she says, it is the only nonmedicalized foot massage treatment in Oregon.

When its benefits are quantified, Richmond hopes to spread the model through OHSU around the state.

Although “footsoaking” is decidedly outside the medical box, Richmond says its benefits fall not just on patients, but on nurses as well.

From her file of patient comments, Richmond reads, “I can’t tell you how valuable this is to me. It’s the one time each week I can truly take my guard down. You don’t know what it’s like to live your live in public all the time.”

“It builds trust,” says Richmond. “It humanizes the homeless. You get below their eye level and have an encounter with people who are normally invisible in our society. So you are decreasing bias in nursing students and getting beyond the labels society puts on the homeless.”

The goal, says nursing student Allison Lake, a member of Nursing Students Without Borders, is “to serve the problem where it’s at and where they are at.”

A student comment from Richmond’s file said, “Engaging with this community in a hands-on, practical, intimate way reminded me of their humanity and my own and it was deeply rewarding to spend a couple hours being of service.”

Richmond started the practice last year and weekly brings half a dozen nursing students to learn it, from 2:30 to 4 on Tuesdays at Ashland’s Methodist Church, in conjunction with the visit of the La Clinica medical van, the shower trailer and, at 4 p.m., Uncle Foods Diner.

A big plus of the program is its simplicity and lack of paperwork, bills or screening. You just show up and soak your feet for 15 minutes in Epsom salts, then 10 minutes of lotion massage. At this time, Richmond can spot any medical problems and send them to the La Clinica van.

“Talk about being invisible, this is the opposite,” she says. “It shifts the power structure. We’re seated below them and have a genuine conversation with them. We make them feel welcome. Some want to relax, some fall asleep, some want to talk the whole time. We don’t guide it at all. This is a population that is stigmatized and treated as ‘less than’ every day — and this is a moment when they’re not treated that way.”

Foot washing is an ancient and iconic healing immortalized by Jesus, who, in John 13:4-15, washed the disciples’ feet before the Last Supper, reminding them that they should love all people as he has loved them — and that the powerful should remember to serve the common folk.

When Pope Francis in 2017 washed the feet of 12 convicts in Rome, he said, “The one who rules must serve If many kings, emperors, heads of state had understood this teaching, instead of ruling, being cruel, killing people, if they would have done this, how many wars would not have been fought? He went to people who were thrown away by society and said ‘you are important to me.’”

The foot massage is accompanied by a hygiene table, where the homeless may help themselves to a range of personal supplies — toothbrush, toothpaste, razors, soap, lip balm, tampons, condoms, hand sanitizer. Most in demand are lip balm and condoms, says student Nabha Goldfeder, but “we go through everything.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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