One man’s passion of providing medical treatment to homeless individuals has grown to be a national phenomenon.
Dr. Jim Withers received simple instructions: “do not dress like a doctor, [don’t] act like a jerk”. These stipulations were the only ones provided by Mike Sallows 24 years ago, when Withers joined him to provide healthcare to the most ostracized population in Pittsburgh. Since then, the pair has transformed their visits to bridges, back alleys, overpasses, and riverbanks into Operation Safety Net. This national network consists of homeless outreach workers and medical volunteers and is recognized as the country’s first targeted, full-time street medicine program. It boasts of reaching more than 10,000 individuals and aided in transitioning more than 1,200 into housing.
According to an interview published by The Huffington Post, Withers described how he actually “started dressing like a homeless person and sneaking out at night with a guy who used to be homeless (Sallows).” This submersion into their world exposed him to “the level of fear and bitterness towards the medical community and general community. 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.”
For him, the motivation derives from his “concern for the way we treated other people.” It also allowed for him to “find a new classroom where we could be forced to come to grips with people outside the system”. Withers also explains that being out and about in nature provides him with enjoyment and new experiences, regardless of the tribulations working with underserved populations may produce.
CNN named Withers as one of its Top Ten Heroes in 2015, touting him as a leading force in fostering a global street medicine movement. As he told CNN, he hopes that in the future –
“…every person who is still on the streets will have medical care that comes directly to them and says, ‘You matter.’ And I’d love to see every medical school have a classroom of the streets.”
Withers continued on to say:
“besides just the good that it does and the money that it saves, having street medicine in every community transforms us. We begin to see that we’re all in this together.”
Through Operation Safety Net and his own non-profit organization, called the Street Medicine Institute, Withers holds the overarching goal that we should all aspire to treat others the way we would want to be treated in that same situation, and to believe that others are worthy of our compassion. Not a bad goal for all of us to consider, even in more than just a medical regard.
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