This Doctor Turned Down a High-Paying Career to Treat the Homeless

When his homeless patients can’t get to a physician, he goes to them.

Jim O'ConnellChris Churchill for Reader's Digest
Shortly after this photo was taken, a homeless woman nearby tripped and cut her scalp. “Dr. O’Connell stepped in with a level of care and compassion that felt so gentle and nonjudgmental,” said our photographer, Chris Churchill.

It’s a Friday morning in Boston, which means Dr. Jim O’Connell is making his rounds. He might be more comfortable inside an exam room, but that’s not where his patients are. O’Connell is one of a handful of physicians making house calls to the homeless in the city.

More than 550,000 Americans are homeless, and many have health problems but no access to care. O’Connell and his team, made up of psychiatrists, internists, a nurse practitioner, a case manager, and a recovery coach, are doing something about it. They spend their days walking around where the homeless live—in parks, under bridges, and on the outskirts of town. They treat about 700 regular patients. During these rounds, O’Connell himself usually sees about 20 patients. He knows where most of them sleep and whom to ask if they are missing. “I feel like I’m a country doctor in the middle of the city, you know?” he said.

O’Connell went to Harvard Medical School and was on his way to a prestigious oncology fellowship when his chief suggested he take what was supposed to be a one-year position as the founding physician of a new health-care program for Boston’s homeless. That turned into a 33-year career at the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, one of the country’s largest of its kind.

“You realize, ‘You know what, I’m just a doctor. And what I can do is I can get to know you and ease your suffering, just as I would as an oncologist,’” O’Connell said. “You could not find a more grateful population.”

And his patients are grateful. “This man is unbelievable!” one remarked. “He’s like Jesus,” another added. This seventeen-year-old is feeding thousands of homeless people–here’s how. 

Jim O'ConnellChris Churchill for Reader's Digest

O’Connell dispenses just about everything, from stitches for an arm to surgery for the soul. If patients can’t be treated on the street, he finds them a treatment bed at the organization’s medical respite facility, a place for patients who are too sick to be on the streets but not ill enough for a hospital stay.

“Everything I had been taught to do [in medical school]—go fast, be efficient—was counterproductive when you take care of homeless people,” O’Connell told Harvard Magazine. “When you see somebody outside, you get them a cup of coffee and sit with them. Sometimes it took six months or a year of offering a sandwich or coffee before someone would start to talk to me. But once they engage, they’ll come to you anytime because they trust you. I often say that the best training I had for this job was having been a bartender, because it’s all about listening.”

When asked about how his life might have turned out had he become a highly paid oncologist, O’Connell said, “I never think about it anymore.”

Some things are more valuable than money. Just ask the man who gets everything from patients who have nothing material to give.

For more incredible stories, check out these 21 acts of kindness that changed people’s lives.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest