Pittsburgh physician who dressed like the homeless to treat them

Street Medicine Institute is now fostering the global street medical movement - making an impact in more than 21 cities of Unites Stated and eleven international cities in four other continents (Photo: Pittsburgh Mercy Health System) Photograph:( Others )

New Delhi, India Mar 29, 2017, 01.03 PM (IST) Devanshi Verma


Grief, palpable stress and lingering hopes are part of any hospital ambience. For a sinking patient, The doctors come as an embodiment of hope. Being a doctor gives one the immense power to heal and make a difference.

Besides the illness that needs attention inside hospitals, there is another world full of sickness and diseases— the world of the homeless people, living a life of penury on the streets. For these street dwellers, medical treatment is a luxury. Facing a life of daily struggle, they are in complete denial about their health issues. 

Dr Jim Withers in Pittsburgh has made serving such people his life's motto. His eagerness and expertise to save lives were not limited within the closed walls of emergency rooms of the hospitals. He knew, he had mastered a skill that had the power to make the world a better place.

If you run into Dr Jim Withers on the streets of Pittsburgh, chances are you will not cast him a second glance. For the past 25 years, this medicine physician has roamed the streets of Pittsburgh dressed as a homeless man with an unusual backpack — one full of medical equipment.

“In the beginning, I dressed as a homeless person to gain their trust. I was reading ‘52 Ways to Help Homeless People’ by Grey Temple. A man, formerly homeless, became my guide and confidante. We made sure that people in tents were okay with us coming in. Most of them were cordial if not friendly,” Dr Withers told WION in an email interview.

Jim discovered an unimaginable amount of illness.

He realised that the illness on streets remains unnoticed and untreated. He went around talking, helping and rehabilitating them because he felt his expertise in the field could be put into use beyond professional gains.

“On an average, homeless people in the US die at the age of 47 years. Violence and substance abuse are definite factors, but untreated ‘normal’ conditions are more often the cause of death. We have witnessed common problems like dehydration, hypothermia, frostbite, diabetes to complicated issues like liver failures and cancers." The average in US for the general populace is 78.7 years.

In spending time with the homeless, Jim learned about their personal struggles. “The people who end up sleeping on the streets are all unique, but face common difficulties. With each story, you realise how complex are the issues, such as lack of income and housing, prior trauma, mental illness, addiction, prejudice and the structural violence of poverty."

Now, Dr Withers' work is not limited to Pittsburgh. His non-profit, Street Medicine Institute, is now fostering the street medical movement at a global scale. It helps communities in starting programmes of their own. The street medicine institute is now present in more than 21 cities of the Unites States and 11 international cities in four other continents.

However, starting out, Jim was able to treat the homeless by building heart-to-heart connections. “Even though people on streets were scarred from the bitter experiences they had with the medical system, they were profoundly grateful to have a physician visit them in their camps, under bridges and along the river banks. It has been a relationship of trust and love that is very unusual in medical practice."

Jim was inspired by how much difference he could make in each life.
“I remember this woman who was so traumatised and frightened. She had been living in a tent and was ridiculed by people on the streets. We convinced her to come to our centre for primary care. We were able to place her in a subsidised apartment after addressing some critical health issues. We helped her locate her grown up son in another part of the country who has now moved in with her. She is now safe and healthy.”

Jim has treated more than 20,000 individuals over the past 25 years. His work was not limited only to medical care. In the past 15 years, 1,500 vagrants got roofs on their heads.

'The students assisting me in the project get very inspired. They reinvent the passion for their profession' (Photo: Pittsburgh Mercy Health System) (Others)

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Jim started the mission with the hope to revolutionise the medical system and how the profession is perceived by aspiring doctors.
“As a medical educator, I was hoping to explore a classroom within the streets that might reinvent how we build our health system. These convictions trace back to my earlier work in South India. The approach was fruitful since the treatment started showing effective results. Moreover, the students assisting me in the project get very inspired. They reinvent the passion for their profession”

His learnings on the streets paid off since he was able to create a scalable model. “Each person has their own set of experiences and challenges that stall their growth. However, it is usually a combination of external barriers and internal wounds. Therefore, we developed a strategy that involves addressing these two factors. From whatever we learned under the bridges, we tried to formulate algorithms that can be applied on larger scales.”Jim is not satiated at what he has achieved so far. "Even though I had made good progress on the streets of Pittsburgh, I felt there is so much work left to be done. Moreover, I knew I couldn’t do it all by myself. I heard of Dr Preger on a trip to India back in 1993 and decided to visit him in Kolkata. Thereon, I got been obsessed with either finding existing programmes to create street medicine communities throughout the world”

The Internet being the blessing it is, played a major role to facilitate the process. He also utilised the activist zeal in students in fostering a global movement for social justice in the health care sector. The good thing is, the word about the movement is spreading fast.

Jim hopes that his work becomes a part of the system and his approach to handling a problem becomes a holistic attitude to address other issues as well. “Eradicating homelessness must be the overarching goal. But as long as there are people sleeping on the streets, communities should integrate street medicine into their fabric, much like having a fire department, in order to directly deal with the medical and social issues.

Immediate action on these issues is the first role of street medicine, but advocating for inclusion in the health system is the next priority. According to Jim, one of the greatest failures of social initiatives is that they are not grounded in the reality of the people. Street medicine is just one instance of how we should create solutions in partnership with those who are excluded.

(WION)