Episode #56: Dr. Jim Withers, The Homeless Doctor

In this podcast, I interview Dr. Jim Withers, Founder of Operation Safety Net. 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 they serve have taught them 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.

This interview will give you a sense of how you can truly make a difference in the lives of those in need. You can find the questions that I asked, my key takeaways, ways to connect with Jim below in the show notes. I know that this interview will add value to your life. Enjoy.

To listen to other interviews, go to our Learning to Lead podcast page. To learn more about what we’re doing through Learning to Lead, sign-up for our e-mail newsletter here.

 

Dr. Jim’s Bio:

In 1992, Dr. Jim Withers set out single-handedly to deliver care to street people in Pittsburgh. He started by doing his homework – clocking hours in the library, reading how to best gain entry to the world of the homeless – before suiting up one night in tattered clothes. “I was rubbing dirt in my hair,” he says. “My kids thought I was crazy.”

But street folks embraced him, Withers says, and he them. “I found great professors of medicine – and life – in alleyways and abandoned buildings, on riverbanks and under bridges.”

His initial project gained patients, volunteer clinicians and students to the extent that, in 1993, Withers officially launched Operation Safety Net under the auspices of not-for-profit Mercy Hospital, which kicked in $50,000 to fund the start-up. Operation Safety Net today offers round-the-clock availability of paramedics, primary care physicians, registered nurses, podiatrists, dentists and the formerly homeless, as well as medical students and residents serving clerkships.

Connect with Jim: 

Operation Safety Net: http://www.pmhs.org/operation-safety-net/

Questions:

  • Tell us about what you do at the Operation Safety net.
  • Talk about the journey to start Operation Safety net. What made you start this? When did you know it was what you were called to do?
  • What have you learned about the homeless population in over 20 years of caring for them?
  • What are some common assumptions you hear people make about people in need that aren’t true? How can we break down these assumptions?
  • How can churches really make a difference in the inner city? How can individuals or families make a difference?
  • How can we partner with what you’re doing?
  • What do you want your legacy to be?

Key Takeaways: 

  • How do you help those in need: Get to know them as individuals!
  • Humanize people!
  • The real courage is to say I’m just a person. You’re just a person. Let’s get to know each other.
  • To be present in suffering is sometimes the highest calling we can have.

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