Dr. Jim Withers isn’t your regular doctor. Every night since he first coined the term ”street medicine” 22 years ago, he has walked the streets of Pittsburgh giving medical attention to the homeless. For free.
While most doctors wait for their patients to come to them, Withers is aware that the people who need him most are unlikely to come to him. So, he goes to them. A humanitarian to the core, Withers strongly believes:
“The best way to care for the homeless is to treat them where they live.” [source]
Carrying his portable office in a backpack full of remedies, Withers makes homeless “house calls” with a crew of medical students and outreach workers.
Dressing as a homeless man himself, Withers will venture into abandoned buildings and through his hometown’s streets to serve the homeless free of charge.
Withers explains how his visionary approach to medicine began:
“The first thing that hit me was the number of people squirreled away under bridges and campsites. 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.” [source]
Withers’ quest to help the homeless started in 1992, when he was a hospital specialist. Unfortunately, he lacked the street knowledge that would enable him to approach the people he wanted to help. Eventually, Withers was able to partner up with formerly homeless man Mike Sallows, who introduced him to the homeless population and helped him gain their trust. Sallows’ biggest tip for Withers was:
“Don’t dress like a doctor and don’t act like a jerk.” [source]
“Literally, I started dressing like a homeless person and sneaking out at night with a guy who used to be homeless. As far as why, that had a lot more to do with my concern for the way we treated other people. 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.” [source]
Initially, Withers did face criticism from his peers, who believed his unpopular approach would risk his credibility in the medical community. However, Withers kept following his passion and it has made a tremendous impact. Now, the father-of-four doesn’t need to disguise himself as a homeless man any longer. Recognized as a hero, he is welcomed and respected by the homeless community and has treated over 26,000 people in the last 22 years. He even has regular patients who are always happy to see him!
Since his initial outreach in 1992, Withers has turned his nightly service into the nonprofit Operation Safety Net, one of the nation’s first full-time street medicine programs. Operation Safety Net is also a part of Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, employing 16 full-time staff members which include social workers, case managers, physicians, nurses and outreach workers. The nonprofit serves the homeless five nights per week.
Not only has Operation Safety Net treated the homeless, but they’ve also assisted 75% of their patients in getting health insurance, as well as putting over 500 people in homes. Withers has proven that one person can make a massive impact, and his revolutionary approach to medicine will keep affecting the community positively. The doctor humbly says:
“It’s kind of an ongoing adventure to figure out how to make something like this work. The power of health care 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 community, a community that sees each person as having value. We’re all in this together.” [source]
Inspiring beyond belief! Here’s an amazing short video about Dr. Jim Withers and his work for humanity: