The man said he was having chest pains, and his breathing was clearly labored. He wanted to talk to a doctor.
The big tent in the parking lot of an East Boston shopping mall seemed like an odd place for such a request, but he was a repeat visitor. It was Thursday night, and his medical friends were in the neighborhood for their weekly visit.
A medical student and a physician listened to his heart, checked his breathing, and encouraged him to visit the nearby community health center. He was skeptical about visiting the clinic but calmer. He said he felt better.
It was a routine visit to the Outreach Van, which regularly dispenses what might be called street medicine to needy people who are often reluctant to seek treatment through more traditional avenues.
Each week, a group of students from Boston University School of Medicine load up a van with donated food and clothing and medical supplies. Along with a supervising physician, they travel from the South End to East Boston, where they serve food and give medical care to whomever shows up to ask for it. BU medical students have done this for 20 years, and they do it every Thursday without exception. No excuses allowed.
That consistency has helped forge a strong bond between the students and the community. As they begin serving food and handing out clothes, they are greeted by familiar faces, poor and homeless people from the neighborhood who wait every week for their arrival.
“One of the big things is the commitment,” said Saikrishna Kugabalasooriar, a fourth-year student who has worked on the van since 2013. “That’s how you develop relationships.”
A group of 32 students rotates on the van project, going out in groups of eight. The program began as an extracurricular project but now counts as an elective. If the patients receive free medical care, the doctors-in-training get a weekly lesson in compassion.
The project is affiliated with Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, which has offered street medicine to homeless people for years. It provides the doctors who supervise the students in East Boston. Last week, Dr. Nancy Torres-Finnerty tended to patients as students assisted her.
But it seems to be the commitment of generations of students that has turned a pilot program into an institution. They say a commitment to social justice is often part of what attracts students to BU — and its partner hospital, Boston Medical Center.
“This is why we went into medicine in the first place,” said Rohan Rastogi, a third-year student. “We just want to be there for patients who aren’t in the same situation we’re in.”
Last week, turnout for the van was heavy, the students said. The food seemed to disappear in minutes. The students passing out clothing were doing a brisk business as well. Everyone seemed to need a new pair of shoes or a blanket. One woman, Yasmin Hernandez, had her grandson in tow. She’s a regular visitor, she said — not so much for the medical care as for the clothing, which she has been wearing to a new job.
“They are very good people,’’ she said of her friends at the van, who greeted her like a family member.
The medical issues ranged from chest pains to skin care issues — a common problem for people who live on the street. The students stay until there is no one left to serve — no one with a cough, or a rash, or a need for a quick blood sugar check. After about two hours, the traffic had slowed to a trickle. As they packed up — another night done, a few dozen patients served — Dr. Torres-Finnerty reflected on lessons imparted.
“We’re all vulnerable to illness, we all have the same basic human needs,” Torres-Finnerty said. “To see that now will totally infiltrate how they’re going to apply their medical skills.”