The teenager stares down at her ratty bell-bottoms as she describes being raped by a group of boys. Dr. Randy Christensen listens attentively and hands her a Kleenex to wipe away her tears. Then, as he glances down at her medical file, he exclaims, "Hey, today's your birthday, isn't it?" She is slightly startled. "Yeah," she stammers. "I'm 18 today." Two minutes later, Christensen, two nurses and another pediatrician hug the teen and serenade her with "Happy Birthday" as her face breaks into a smile. "You've made my day," she says. "You're the only one who knows."
And for many kids like this one, Randy Christensen is the only one who cares. For the past eight years, the 41-year-old doctor has routinely clocked 60-hour weeks, the bulk of his time spent cruising the streets of Phoenix in his RV offering free medical services to more than 7,000 homeless teenagers. Funded by Phoenix Children's Hospital and other advocacy groups, the mobile medical clinic—outfitted with two examining rooms and high-tech equipment—offers a safe haven for local teens who fled abusive homes or runaways who head south in the winter. "One of the biggest fallacies about homeless adolescents is, 'Oh, what lazy bums,'" he says. "But these kids have survived so much that most of us couldn't."
Living on the edge wreaks havoc on young bodies. The teens often arrive at the van with a host of problems—from horrible skin infections to asthma—after spending countless nights on park benches or in alleys. Christensen and his staff of seven treat the teens in the van or refer them to specialists. "Randy is reaching a forgotten population," says Arizona congressman Ed Pastor. "These kids live in the shadows, but need medical care just as badly as anyone."
It's not only the physical problems Christensen treats. "He has this sense of what I'm going through," says Kira, 19, who hit the streets two years ago after her mother kicked her out. Says Adriana Seweyestewa, a 19-year-old single mom from the Hopi Reservation 250 miles way, who picks up diapers at the clinic: "He asks me questions, not just about my health, but about how I'm feeling."
As the son of a computer technician and a homemaker in Tucson, Christensen was raised with a strong sense of charity. "We never had money," he recalls. "My dad used to buy one tire at a time." But that didn't stop his mother from plucking change out of the family's pockets and donating it to local shelters. After completing medical school in 1995, Christensen could have earned more in private practice, but felt compelled to help homeless teens. "I felt like I could make a difference in their lives," he says.
That commitment is not limited to the workweek. Married to another pediatrician and the father of three young children, he often spends weekends collecting secondhand clothing for his clients and devotes free time to driving the teens to appointments with specialists . "I'm helping a population that has no options," he says. "This is really what practicing medicine is all about."
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- McKenna Costianes.