Up Close | UCSF Fresno Surgeon Helps the Unsheltered and Children Living in Poverty

On a chilly morning, dozens of cold and hungry people are at Poverello House in Fresno for a safe place to rest, eat a hot meal, take a shower, do laundry, and for some it is a chance to get free health screenings and to talk to Farah Karipineni, MD, a UCSF Fresno endocrine surgeon and faculty member in the UCSF Fresno Department of Surgery.

For the past two years, on every other Monday morning, Dr. Karipineni has come to the Poverello House, a refuge for people who are unsheltered, to volunteer at the UCSF Fresno Mobile Health and Learning (Mobile HeaL) clinic.

Dr. Karipineni takes blood pressure and checks blood sugar levels. And occasionally she cleans and dresses wounds — mostly blisters on heels and oozing diabetic foot ulcers that can become infected if left untreated. “Their feet are their wheels,” she said of people who walk to Poverello House, many pushing baby strollers and shopping carts full of belongings.  

Bandaging a blister is far removed from the delicate and complex surgeries Dr. Karipineni performs weekly at Community Regional Medical Center, but she is not acting as a surgeon here. “I really, honestly, haven’t found how I am needed as a surgeon …  and I’m OK with that … I wanted to be in this community in whatever capacity it needed me.” 

Dr. Karipineni invites UCSF Fresno surgery residents to join her at Poverello House and gives them dedicated time to be at the Mobile HeaL clinic. Residents who have joined her have found it rewarding, she said. “It’s not a billable event but it is still a good use of our time and I am glad that is being modeled and it is being modeled during business hours for our residents.” 

Dr. Karipineni’s volunteer service embodies UCSF Fresno’s commitment to improving health in the San Joaquin Valley and Central California through teaching, patient care, research and community partnerships. And the needs in the greater Fresno area are many. In 2022, there were 4,216 persons experiencing homelessness in Fresno and Madera counties and 2,338 were unsheltered, according to the latest Point in Time homelessness survey. In Fresno County, 20.6% of residents experience poverty.

And more than half of Black and Latinx households are in relative poverty, according to the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission.

It is easy to say people are homeless or in poverty because of something they did wrong, but there is little that separates people who are struggling from those who are not, Dr. Karipineni said. “We need to find empathy and understanding for those folks who just didn’t have what we had to succeed.”

Dr. Karipineni began looking for ways to become involved in community service projects shortly after coming to UCSF Fresno five years ago. Volunteering at Poverello House is only her latest commitment. She started as a volunteer four years ago at Live Again Fresno, a nonprofit that provides after school programs and other activities for children of families living in motels in the Parkway Drive area off Highway 99 in south Fresno.

“These children had a dilemma which is some of their parents would be working inside of the motel rooms or on the street or whatever,” Dr. Karipineni said. “And the kids after school or maybe not in school would just be stuck in these parking lots where there would be needles, condoms. It’s just not a safe environment for them at all and nowhere for them to go.”

She first began reading to the children as part of the Live Again Fresno after-school program. “I love reading to my kids, but I think reading brings an opportunity for connection, just getting lost in a story, especially when your life is very different from what the story is,” she said. She also has been a mentor to a Live Again Fresno teen. More recently, she has been working with medical students to deliver hot rotisserie chicken meals to families living in motels.

Nearly half of the 227 children enrolled in the after-school program do not have a permanent home with a stove or means to cook a hot, healthy meal, said David Burrell, founder and executive director of Live Again Fresno. “To have a Costco rotisserie chicken with all the stuff that goes with that, is just amazing. It’s amazing for the child to have that but it’s also a very loving way to support the moms and say you don’t have to struggle and try to figure this out. Blessings to you and your family, just for being you. There’s no strings attached. Here you go.”

Live Again Fresno serves over 200 children, but more could be helped by volunteers for children ages five to 23 with additional financial support. Dr. Karipineni is now a member of the Live Again Fresno board of directors and is hoping to find ways to improve the nonprofit’s financial stability.

But Dr. Karipineni’s presence alone makes a difference in the children’s lives, said JaNessa Williams, Live Again Fresno program director. “It gives the kids someone to look up to as a role model and somebody to show the kids that they can be something like a doctor or a surgeon,” she said. “It just opens the minds of the youth to what they can be … it opens many doors for the kids’ imagination.” 

Burrell said Dr. Karipineni’s time is her most valuable resource. “She is a surgeon; she is a wife and she is a wonderful mother of three very young children – and she finds time – she makes time to invest in the lives of young people. And the return on that investment is life changing – total life changing.” 

Carving time in her busy work and home schedules is a challenge and Dr. Karipineni wishes she could do more because there are so many unmet needs in the community.

“For my husband and I, we think the same way … the more that we have, the more we should give. And we have been blessed with a lot more than we think we should have; more than we ever even thought we would have. So, then you have choices to make. Do you want to buy a bigger house? Do you want to buy a better car? Do you want your kids to go to private school? Or do you want to lift up the most vulnerable people in society? And that’s what we want to do. I don’t think you can be happy if you don’t serve the community.”