Dr. Lipi Roy Works to Serve Boston’s Most Overlooked Citizens

A decade ago, Lipi Roy was a second-year medical student at Tulane University in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina breached the levees, flooding the city and changing millions of lives.

For Roy, it changed the way she looked at her work as a physician.

“That’s when I got a sense of what it means to take care of people who have lost everything,” she said.

It was an experience she took to heart. Today, Roy lives in Boston and devotes part of her work to caring for the homeless at the Pine Street Inn, a shelter and clinic that helps disenfranchised people in the South End.

Roy said that her work with people after Katrina greatly influenced her decision to help underserved patients, instead of treating the general public health or taking a biomedical research track, as she was considering before the storm. She has stuck with that decision now for 10 years, working at Pine Street and the St. Francis House shelter to treat indigent and at times mentally unstable people.

A native of Toronto, Roy did not initially dream about being a doctor. She worked at a bank in Toronto before college and eventually set her course on a research-focused path as she progressed through undergraduate and graduate programs at the University of Toronto and medical school at Tulane.

When the levees broke and Tulane flooded with the rest of the city, Roy was evacuated. She had no idea where she would end up for about 5 weeks, but eventually she found her way to Houston, along with many other people who fled New Orleans.

In Texas, Tulane faculty resumed classes for the medical students, and Houston became a home away from home. This unexpected change of scenery lasted for nine months before the students were able to return to their original campus. The Tulane medical students were the only ones to graduate on time from the university after the storm hit.

“I’m extremely grateful to the city of Houston… We would not have been able to survive without it,” Roy said.

Seeing patients in both Houston and New Orleans after the hurricane reinforced the idea of overall health in Roy’s mind. In her words, “health isn’t just the medicines you prescribe. It’s questions of ‘where are you getting your next meal, where are you sleeping tonight, who’s your family, who’s your support system?’”

Roy travelled to India during her third year as a medical student at Tulane, revisiting a country she had been to previously many times for family trips. This time, however, Roy’s goal was to work clinically with patients and with the overall public health of the region.

“In India I got to see fascinating cases that you just don’t get to see back here in North America,” Roy said.

She was able to work at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, treating advanced stages of everything from meningitis to lupus. These complicated illnesses, in Roy’s opinion, are more common in India than America due to the general lack of healthcare professionals in the country compared to its massive population.

After returning to the states and earning her medical degree from Tulane, Roy settled at Duke University, where she completed her internal medicine residency. Roy continued to work with low-income, underprivileged patients at the Duke University Medical Center.

During her residency, another natural disaster struck, but this time it was not so close to home. When a massive earthquake afflicted Haiti in 2010, Roy knew she had to find a way to help.

“I really wanted to go… I felt helpless being up here in the States,” she said. And so she did.

Duke was only sending a limited number of medical professionals to Haiti, so Roy applied elsewhere. She found her way to Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, by volunteering with an organization based in Illinois called Sustainable Action International. During her week-long stay, she helped about 150 earthquake survivors.

After completing her residency in three years at Duke, Roy moved back to Boston. She’s worked here briefly after getting her graduate degree in neurophysiology from the University of Toronto. During her first stay in the city, Roy was doing research for private pharmaceutical companies. Now, after seeing and working with patients of need in Louisiana and North Carolina, Roy was determined to land a job working with a similar community in Boston.

She took a position with the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program in 2011 and began working at Pine Street and the St. Francis House shelter, along with Massachusetts General Hospital.

Roy said the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program is designed to cater to the very specific and unique needs of its patients. These needs range from dental care to sexual education, but the primary affliction of Roy’s patients is drug addiction. Substance abuse has increased in Massachusetts recently, specifically the use of opiates. More than anything, though, Roy and the staff of the Pine Street clinic pride themselves on making a safe space for people who lack any other access to general care.

“This is their home,” said Karen Sherwin, a nurse at the clinic.

Sherwin has been at the clinic for 13 years and has worked with Roy extensively. According to Sherwin, Roy’s expertise is addiction and substance abuse.

“The substance abuse problem has been at the forefront of everything we do… [Roy’s] strength with addiction has been really phenomenal,” Sherwin said.

Davis Droll, another nurse at the clinic, has worked with Roy extensively. “She’s open and flexible and has a really great sense of humor,” he said. “We’re all close and we all try to look out for each other.”

Roy said the most rewarding aspect of her current job comes from her interactions and connections with her patients.

“It’s been such a privilege to get to know people on this very deep, personal, intimate level. When people come to you with their deepest concerns about their health, it’s a real privilege, but it’s also a tremendous responsibility,” she said.

Four years ago, Roy had an interaction with a patient while working at a clinic in MGH that solidified her belief that healthcare goes beyond simply medicine. It can be a gateway to deeply personal, moving interactions. The man she was treating was getting on in years and was known as being “grumpy” and “curmudgeonly” around the staff and other patients.

“I used to think that all this man did was complain,” Roy said.

One day, he asked Roy for his medication earlier than normal. Initially, Roy refused, but the man insisted. He claimed he was travelling and needed his medication for the upcoming trip.

Curious, Roy inquired about his destination. “Florida,” he responded. As it turned out, each year this man travelled by bus from Massachusetts to the sunshine state to visit his wife’s burial site. Even though she had passed from this life years ago, the man still insisted on spending each anniversary with his wife.

This answer led to a deeper conversation, in which Roy learned that the man had no children or other family, still led an active lifestyle despite being in his mid-eighties and was a veteran of World War II. He’d enlisted when he was only a teenager. He thanked Roy for the medication and told her how it helped him get by each day, running errands and keeping busy.

“Sometimes it pays to just remove your eyes from the computer and just look at the patient and get to know them,” Roy said. “It reminded me how lucky I am to be a doctor.”

Roy’s passion for health and wellness goes beyond the borders of her professional life. In her free time, she runs a blog, spicesforlifemd.com, where she posts healthy recipes and tips for overall healthy living. The website was started during Roy’s residency at Duke as a way for her to reach a larger audience and share her passion for cooking and wellness.

“I’m really trying to combine my passion for medicine with media and get my voice out there,” she said. “What’s the point of going to school for all these years and getting all this knowledge if I can’t share it with the people around me?”

Roy’s interest in healthcare for low-income patients has also blended with a passion for photography. Her photo essay, “Capturing the Humanity in Homelessness,” was funded by MGH and now hangs in the office of Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez at the State House.

From Toronto to Boston by way of Katrina, Dr. Lipi Roy has found her passion in helping provide medical attention to some of society’s most overlooked citizens. Her mission now, she says, is the same as it was the first time she wrote it in an essay for medical school: “I want to have a positive impact in this world, one person at a time.”

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