Most of us will never have to ask what we would do if we found ourselves homeless and in dire need of healthcare. I know I seem to take for granted the roof over my head and the access to healthcare I have. But, there are millions around the world and thousands in our country who don’t have either.
In 1992, Dr. Jim Withers, an internal medicine physician, began providing medical care to Pittsburgh’s unsheltered homeless population. He partnered with street-savvy formerly homeless individuals and, initially dressing as a homeless person, began to make nighttime street rounds in the alleys and under the bridges of the city. From this initial outreach service other clinical volunteers joined in and Operation Safety Net was born. Today, Operation Safety Net is recognized as one of nation’s first, targeted, full-time street medicine programs. It continues to set the standard for this unique form of health care.
The people we serve have taught us how to best address their needs in the context of their real lives. By developing trust and fostering deep, personal connection with the individuals we serve, we are able to partner with them to find solutions.
But, watching these videos really will put it in perspective for you better:
Dr. Withers decided just helping the local homeless wasn’t enough:
At the core, he sought to base his work on the streets (“Street Medicine”) on a deep philosophical basis that would meet people in their own reality. Much of health care is based on the model of making people come to the medicine. It forces people to fit into the boxes designed for the comfort of practitioners. But, this system excludes those who cannot come to systems, those that usually need it most.
Street medicine has become a global movement. Since Dr. Wither first connected with Dr. Jack Preger in Calcutta in 1993, a network of over 80 communities practicing street medicine has emerged. It is essential that these communities support each other. These practitioners are largely “homeless” themselves in the medical community. Not only is the practice not recognized, but the values they hold that prioritize the value of the most vulnerable are also not embraced by main stream health care.
As Dr. Withers traveled to communities throughout the US and other countries, he sensed a burning desire among Street Medicine practitioners to link together for insight and encouragement. To that end, he and others created the annual International Street Medicine Symposium in 2005. Since that time, seven highly successful symposia have been held and the next is planned for September 2012. These have begun to build the kind of unity that is needed to validate street medicine as an actual field of medicine.
In 2008, Dr. Withers and other dedicated Street Medicine practitioners officially launched the Street Medicine Institute. This Street Medicine Institute is now the “home” of street medicine and will serve the following four key purposes:
- To assist communities seeking to establish their own street medicine programs.
- To define and improve the practice of street medicine
- To host the annual International Street Medicine Symposium
- To provide educational opportunities (such as the Street Medicine Fellowship)
The essence of street medicine is the Golden Rule – doing unto others as we would have others do to us if we were in their shoes. This requires us to believe others are worthy enough to deserve our compassion … and we are ultimately connected as brothers and sisters.
Some might ask – why? Why would this Doctor do what he is doing? This article might best answer that question:
As a child, Withers accompanied his mother, June, a nurse who made home visits and volunteered her time delivering Meals on Wheels. He also joined his late father, Dr. Donald Withers, who made house calls in their hometown near York, Pa. He says he found the example set by his parents to be “inspirational even before I had any medical knowledge.” The patients, he goes on to explain, “obviously loved my dad. It was very human. They were very comfortable with each other. It still sticks with me.”
Withers’s undergraduate experience at Haverford College, a small, elite liberal-arts school with Quaker roots and a tradition of social activism, reinforced the values he gained from tagging along with his father on rounds.
As soft-spoken and gentle a man as Withers is, he’s still taking a stand today, a stand against indifference, intolerance and the attitude that, in medicine: “It’s all about me, and you as the patient need to come to me on my terms.” The point of practicing street medicine, he says, is the opposite: “I’ll honor who you are and come to you.”