Dr. Jim Withers: The Story of Street Medicine
Dr. Oz shares the story of internist Dr. Jim Withers, a doctor who offers free medical care to the homeless. He spends most of his time under bridges, down darkened alleys, and abandoned streets, offering free medical care to a group of people too often forgotten. He has devoted his life to serving the underserved by making house calls, bringing hope and healing to the homeless for more than 20 years. He is the founder and medical director of Street Medicine Institute. This undercover doctor who treats homeless for free is an internist and a graduate of University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He started practicing street medicine in May 1992.
Every night, he takes to the streets of Pittsburg armed with a back pack of medical supplies to visit those who are unable or unwilling to seek medical care on their own.
A homeless man, one of Dr. Withers’ patients, was interviewed and asked why he does not go to the hospital for treatment. He answers, “We don’t like going to the hospital because the first thing they do is look at our arm and say we are drug addicts and so they treat us differently.” The hospital staff would just say, “they are killing themselves”. But they like coming to Dr. Withers because they are treated with kindness and respect.
Dr. Withers dresses down in order to blend in to earn their trust. The homeless community now welcomes him as one of their own. When asked why he does what he does, the good doctor says, “I don’t think there has come a time when I don’t find ways to be close to those who are poor—who have been marginalized. That’s really important to me”. His patients suffer with everything from infected wounds to life threatening cancers, and for them Dr. Withers is their only hope for survival. He gives them a second lease on life.
He explains that, “People out there are hanging on for dear life. One of the things that happens is you see yourself in street people. If you’re honest you will see—‘I could have been there, it could have been me’”.
Biggest Challenges Of Street Medicine
Dr. Oz then asks, “What inspired you to do this kind of work?” He answers, “When I was little, my father was a family doctor,…took me on house so it’s very natural to go to people. And, as you probably experienced, you realize that as you go through that, there’s a disconnect between people and the health system. So, really, I was looking for a classroom to take my students out. I went out to save doctors as much as I save the homeless folks. And so this has evolved into a movement. We’ve got 48 communities where we started programs and we call it Street Medicine.”
The next question that Dr. Oz asked was, “What are the biggest challenges of taking care of folks on the street—the street medicine you are living to?”
Dr. Withers explains, “First is hopelessness—their sense that someone care about them. Initially I dress like a homeless person to kind of mingle. And then, get involved. And the real challenge is going with people in solidarity to get them the services that they really need.”
Dr. Withers has been doing street medicine for 23 years. So, that means 20,000 people have benefited simply because he came to this planet. There are many different success stories in this 23 years, but there is one that stands out. It is Jack’s story.
He then recounts his encounter with Jack. “Jack’s a great guy. He’s an ex-marine. He found himself on hard times. I met him when he was on the street. We actually got him into housing and I made house calls again. …and I watched him and he inspired me in his recovery…not always straight-forward but he really stuck to it, and he’s really come a long way.”
In this segment, Dr. Oz shows Jack’s video message to D. Withers. In his taped message, Jack said, “I saw a medical man came into the tent city of homeless people and I trust him. I saw him administer medical advice, and he was looking for anyone that is willing to start changing their life. And that’s when I met Dr. Withers. I honestly don’t know how I would have done it without the support of Dr. Withers…he became a good friend”.
When asked how it feels to have that kind of an impact on people, he answered, “Very humbling. …and if I can quote you Dr. Oz because this inspired me, you wrote or said once, ‘I want no more barriers between patient and medicine. I would take us all back to a thousand years when our ancestors lived in small villages, and there was always a healer in that village’. I feel we are a village. We are connected. If we don’t reach out to the people who are being excluded or left out, we are not as healthy as we could be.”