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editor’s essay

The Art of Altruism

Portrait of Ann Whitcher Gentzke, At Buffalo Editor

Ann Whitcher Gentzke, Editor

A few years ago, I wrote an essay for an art and aesthetics course that focused on the body. Asked to reflect on a piece of postmodern art, I chose Krzysztof Wodiczko’s 1988-89 “Homeless Vehicle Project,” a yearlong installation in New York. At the time, I knew little about Wodiczko’s work, but I was captivated by this piece: a portable mini-shelter that gave voice to those usually relegated to the margins of our consciousness.  

One of the things Wodiczko did with his installation was to prod the viewer into a different relationship with the homeless—stirring the conscience beyond uttering the customary expression of regret, or reaching quickly for a dollar before rushing off to whatever might be waiting on the other side of the interaction. I’ve been thinking a lot about this project since reading our feature story on the UB HEALS program, through which UB medical students, working in teams with physicians and social workers, seek out and treat homeless people in downtown Buffalo. 

To me, Charles Anzalone’s story upends stereotypes of homelessness by relating the experience of students who deliver care to those without a home to call their own. The medical needs of these people may not be obvious to the passerby; their injuries or illness may not take physical form. Whatever factors led them to homelessness may be difficult for an outsider to comprehend. But the students and physicians engaged in this life-saving care do not judge. Nor do they shrink from direct physical contact when it’s needed to address their patients’ underlying conditions.

“It was sobering,” Anzalone told me of his experience accompanying the students on their street medicine rounds one evening in September. “These are people you would see every day and pass by without giving any thought to them. And with just a little attention, the UB HEALS people found that they were suffering in plain sight without giving any outward warning sign. Whether their needs were physical or emotional, they were plainly in crisis.” 

Anzalone was particularly struck by the students’ altruism. “They were legitimately out to improve their surroundings rather than just secure their place as doctors,” he said, recounting a dramatic moment in the evening when the removal of a piece of clothing revealed a festering condition. “Who would have known what was wrong with this guy if the UB HEALS team hadn’t taken the time to talk to him and win his trust?” he wondered out loud. 

I had no answer but could only admire the devotion of this band of healers who are helping to expand the art of medicine. As Wodiczko once commented, “It is impossible to make any change in the world if one doesn’t feel a stranger, if one doesn’t see the world from the point of view of strangers.”