The “hero” label tends to get used a bit too casually. But when CNN names you as one of its Top Ten Heroes of 2015, as they’ve done with Pittsburgh’s Dr. Jim Withers, people around the world take notice.
For 23 years, Dr. Withers has been making house calls to the homeless. As founder and medical director of Operation Safety Net, part of Pittsburgh Mercy Health System and Trinity Health, he and his staff and volunteers bring health care to the homeless where they live—under bridges and overpasses, in alleys, and along the rivers. It’s “street medicine,” a term he coined which is now universally used, including for the Street Medicine Institute, an international group he helped found.
We spoke with Dr. Withers just after he returned from the weeklong International Street Institute Symposium in San Jose, California.
How did it feel when you heard CNN named you as a Top Ten Hero of 2015?
I was kind of overwhelmed. It’s a level of recognition that’s a bit out of proportion to my work. But then I thought about it and realized that the issues are important and national and international in scope in terms of people who need help and aren’t getting it out there.
What would you like Pittsburghers to know about the homeless in our area?
Pittsburgh is a good city with good people in it. Maybe unlike some cities that are more affluent, there is a blue collar understanding of poverty that makes them very generous and empathetic. I’d want them to know that the homeless are people like you and me who’ve had experiences not like you and me. They’ve been hurt. They’ve made mistakes. But, more often than not, this situation has been forced on them, and their lives are broken. These folks are so misunderstood and you just don’t know them till you talk to them.
Do you have a most memorable patient?
There was an 85-year-old man who liked to be called Grandpa. He had pretty significant mental illness and a lot of medical conditions. I had to learn to work on his terms. He taught me in the beginning that, more than anything, working on the street would be all about building trust in the relationship. He also had a lot of dignity. He was always concerned about me and my family. He would give me $50 every holiday for my family to buy a turkey or whatever. And I don’t know where he got the money but that was his way of paying me.
Do you see creativity among the homeless?
Absolutely. In the homes they make for themselves, for one thing. Absolutely. And people take care of their own injuries, splint their own broken fingers. But there’s a lot of artistic talent. I have an African mask carved by a man down by the Allegheny River from a piece of driftwood, and I have a clay sculpture given to me by a homeless woman in Stockholm. We have art therapy in our Operation Safety Net program and I’m astounded by some of the artistic ability, including stories and scripts for plays.
What inspires you the most about what you do?
The Street Medicine Symposium where I just came from was so inspiring. People from six continents, enthusiastic beyond belief to help people in their own cities, really on fire to change not only how health care is delivered but how communities treat each other. We had students from all over the world—medical students, physician assistant, nursing, social work—and you could just see the fire and excitement that you don’t see as much in health care these days.
In 23 years, has there been a most challenging day of practicing street medicine?
I’ll go back to Grandpa. One night we had lost track of him. It was when we were first developing trust. I had heard his legs were swollen and filled with maggots. There was a nurse that said she knew where to find him. We got to him late at night and I was overwhelmed by what I found. He refused to go to a hospital so we wound up going to a clinic that the nurse had keys to and we worked on his legs the best we could. I felt like I was in a third world country. But it led to a relationship where he trusted us more and we were able to treat him much better.
You’ve talked before about the people and circumstances you’ve seen that haunt you, and a volunteer who said, “It ain’t hard going out there, it’s hard to go home, knowing there are people still sleeping out there.” What do you do to escape?
I like going into nature. I like the parks we have here in Pittsburgh and I have a good buddy with a cabin in the mountains, so I like going there. I like to read books that have to do with how we see the world. So it may be the same sort of activity that I’m doing in my work but I just don’t seem to get enough of it.
Who were your heroes growing up and now?
Growing up it was my dad. A country doctor who really exemplified what I wanted to be. He passed away in 2007. My hero now is my mom. Her way of looking at people, to see the inner person and the inner good, has always been an influence on me. She taught me that you don’t have to be a doctor, or a great person of influence, to have a great effect on others.
On Sunday, December 6th, CNN will air “CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute,” during which the network will announce the “CNN Hero of the Year,” an award based on public voting. Dr. Withers and each of the other Top Ten Heroes receive $10,000, with the top vote-getter receiving an additional $100,000 grant.
People can vote once a day, every day. For more information and to vote for Dr. Withers, visit the CNN Heroes site.