BOSTON — It’s Friday morning in Boston, which means Dr. Jim O’Connell is making his rounds.
He might be a little more comfortable inside a warm exam room, but that’s not where his patients are. O’Connell is Boston’s only doctor left still making house calls to the homeless.
Nearly 600,000 Americans are homeless, and many have health problems with no access to care. O’Connell and his nationally renowned team of “street doctors” are doing something about it, treating about 700 regular patients.
O’Connell and his team of psychologists and social workers spend their days walking around downtown where his patients live — in parks, under bridges and on the outskirts of town.
During his morning rounds, O’Connell himself usually sees about 20 patients. He knows where most of his patients sleep and knows who 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 at the age of 30. After finishing his residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, he was on his way to a prestigious oncology fellowship when the city of Boston received a grant, along with 18 other cities, to improve their health care system for the homeless.
At the suggestion of his chief, O’Connell took what was supposed to be a one-year position as the founding doctor of the new health care program for Boston’s homeless. That turned into a 32-year career as head of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, now the country’s largest of its kind.
“You start to 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.”
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, O’Connell finds them a temporary treatment bed in a shelter.
O’Connell also sees patients at McInnis House, the main shelter of BHCHP. Patients sometimes stay for an extended period of time while they receive treatment.
“He’s like Jesus,” one of his patients said.
“This man is unbelievable!” another remarked. “This is my doctor. He’s been my doctor for life.”
O’Connell said he doesn’t think about what life would be like as a highly paid oncologist.
“I never think about it anymore,” he said.
Some things are more valuable than money. Just ask the man who gets everything from patients who have nothing at all to give.