Dr. Jim Withers, from Pittsburgh, Pa., has dedicated the past 20 years of his life to treating the city’s homeless. He is known as the ‘street doctor’ because he dresses up like a homeless person and goes out at night to provide medical care to the real needy.
The extraordinary doctor started his unusual practice in 1992, along with Mike Sallows, a former homeless man. The two of them went out at night with backpacks of medicine. Withers estimates that he has treated over 1,200 homeless people a year since 1992.
Today, his initiative has evolved into a national network of medical students and volunteers who treat the homeless, four nights a week. The nightly service is now a nonprofit – Operation Safety Net. It is one of the first full-time street medicine programs in the United States.
Photo: Youtube video caption
Withers said that his concern for the way other people are treated, propelled him to do what he does. “Literally, I started dressing like a homeless person and sneaking out at night with a guy who used to be homeless,” he said. “As a medical educator, if I could find a new classroom where we could be forced to come to grips with people outside the system, for me, that required a complete plunge.”
“The first thing that hit me was the number of people squirreled away under bridges and campsites,” Withers said. “The level of fear and bitterness towards the medical community and general community hit me full blast. As I began to look at the medical issues, I began to realize there were people with bad wounds, unhealed ulcers, cancers and all kinds of things that weren’t being addressed.”
Photo: Street Medicine Detroit
When he first started the service, Withers was a hospital specialist. His colleagues were not too happy with his initiative, but he stuck to his guns. Risking his standing in the medical community, he chose to stand up for his mission.
“Some people were negative about it when I started, but they have a lot to learn,” he said. “I think it’s a way of reviewing ourselves and a new way of connecting with people that we need in the healthcare profession.” But today, things have changed a lot. The same colleagues have been calling Withers to ask if their children in medical school can join his team.
Photo: Pittsburgh Mercy Health System
In the early days, Withers would just fill his backpack with a few medical supplies and free medicine samples from drug reps. Now, the financial support from donors has helped him afford more supplies. “It’s kind of an ongoing adventure to figure out how to make something like this work,” he said. “When possible, we try to get people insurance. We started with 25 percent of them having insurance to now 75 percent that have insurance.”
Filmmaker Julie Sokolow followed Withers and his team for two days, to shoot footage for a documentary. The short film was featured on the website NationSwell, last week. “There’s this brutal honesty about it,” said Sokolow. “You start to find some of their characteristics contagious. I got obsessed with the idea of being obsessed with your profession. I was inspired by his compassion and fearlessness and thought about how to bring that into my own filmmaking.”
According to Withers, “The power of healthcare goes way beyond medicine. It changes all the people involved: the homeless become more empowered and they get the courage to get off the streets. I think healing is really the formation of a community that sees each person having value. We’re all in this together.”
Dr. Withers’ street program has been replicated in 90 countries worldwide. This, he said, is an incredible mark of hope for the future of community healthcare.
via Huffington Post