Dr. Jim Withers: Healer of the Forgotten
Updated: Sep 7
Scarring is the inevitable legacy of neglect and abuse. Dr. Jim Withers has dedicated his life to reducing the scarring experience of homelessness by creating a new legacy – one exemplified by humanitarianism and social justice. He applies the salve of “street medicine” in order to heal wounds and demonstrate to homeless individuals that they matter. Street medicine, a term coined by Dr. Withers, involves delivering health care and social services directly to homeless people in their environment.
Dr. Withers, a recipient of numerous awards including the Jefferson Award for Public Service and CNN’s Top Hero Award, has traveled to countries on six different continents providing medical treatment to homeless people, lending guidance to individuals establishing street medicine programs, and lecturing on numerous medical topics for more than 25 years. A variety of media outlets have reported on his remarkable work including CBS, NBC’s “Dateline,” and “People Magazine.” Still, he remains humble. He states that while assisting homeless individuals, “I quiet myself and listen. I’m present for the other person and make sure they are heard.”
While growing up, Dr. Withers accompanied his father, a physician, on house calls. As a teen, he traveled to Guatemala and Nicaragua with his father as well as his mother, a nurse, to help sick people in those countries. Later, as a medical student enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh's Medical School, he traveled to India and witnessed the vulnerability and trauma of “people living in other realities” due to disease and abuse. As an internist, Dr. Withers immersed himself in those realities to better understand and help the impoverished. It was a pivotal moment, one that led him to spearhead the street medicine movement.
His journey was not an easy one. “Initially, I felt alone,” he said. After he met Dr. Jack Preger, he knew he was not by himself in wanting to help individuals experiencing homelessness. Dr. Preger had championed healthcare for unsheltered individuals in Calcutta, India (now known as “Kolkata”) since 1972. The two had much in common - both men desired to help individuals who were unable to help themselves.
Back in the States, while practicing medicine in Pittsburgh, PA, Dr. Withers saw that some people felt unwanted. "There were ubiquitous trauma and domestic violence issues," he said. "People were dehumanized by healthcare.”
It was in 1992 when a formerly homeless man named Mike showed Dr. Withers the ins and outs of homeless living on the streets of Pittsburgh. Dr. Withers made great strides in humanizing healthcare by showing compassion along with medical expertise, and the pair were indeed a safety net for people catapulted from sheltered living. By the end of 1992, Dr. Withers had a medical recording system, a grant, and several nurses working with him.
Soon thereafter, Dr. Withers decided to partner with Pittsburgh Mercy, a community health and wellness provider, creating Pittsburgh Mercy’s Operation Safety Net. Amazingly, Dr. Withers does not just provide medical services to his patients. Along with his team of 3-4 healthcare professionals, (including a nurse, a social worker, and 1-2 medical students), he distributes sleeping bags, boots, socks, food, and water to individuals experiencing homelessness. Dr. Wither’s organization, and those like it, save hospitals millions of dollars by boosting Medicaid insurance coverage and reducing emergency department visits and admissions.
As full-time medical director of Pittsburgh Mercy’s Operation Safety Net, Dr. Withers has created an organization with both comprehensive services and street medicine outreach. The organization houses homeless individuals in a winter shelter where they have access to hot meals, showers, laundry facilities, basic healthcare, benefits coordination, and housing assistance. Operation Safety Net also offers alcohol, drug, and mental health outreach programs, medicine education and management, recovery support, and legal assistance. During the past 28 years, the organization has served thousands of homeless individuals and has helped hundreds obtain safe housing.
According to the United Nations (2015), more than 734 million people worldwide, one-tenth of humanity, face extreme poverty and deprivation of basic human needs. The Street Medicine Institute, founded by Dr. Withers in 2008, aids these poverty-stricken people and provides communities and clinicians with the training, guidance, and support needed in order to establish and develop their own street medicine practices throughout the world. Dr. Withers’ fortitude has helped to establish street medicine programs in 85 cities in 15 countries across five continents. Additionally, thirty-five medical schools have the program with 15 more in the process.
Dr. Withers acknowledges the parallels between the AIDS epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic. With the AIDS epidemic, “there was a global fear,” Dr. Withers said. “It was translated to the people who were a source of the illness.” Like AIDS, the COVID-19 situation is frightening, especially in some shelters for homeless people that became petri dishes for the virus. Ironically, the most socially ostracized people on the planet, those that live on the fringe of society, find themselves unable to adequately social distance at this time.
Dr. Withers has a global vision to further connect with students, programs, and other people who want to take part in the street medicine movement. He is writing a book and film production about street medicine has begun in locales such as Pittsburgh, Detroit, and New Delhi, India. “I want to link up with people who want to reimage healthcare in a human way,” he said. “I would like to help a larger system navigate to a better place.” Dr. Withers desires to continue serving people and helping to create a “bedrock of a more humane health system overall.”
Dr. Withers is fond of the writings of Lao Tzu (born 4th century BC), an ancient Chinese philosopher who stated:
Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say ‘We have done this ourselves.’
Clearly, Dr. Withers personifies these words. Further testimony and evidence of this fact lies in the thousands of grateful homeless individuals whose lives he has touched and healed. Undoubtedly, many others will follow Dr. Withers example and ease the world’s ills by spreading benevolence with the balm of street medicine worldwide.
Dr. Withers graciously agreed to speak to Good Works Direct about his work. For more information, please see www.streetmedicine.org and www.pittsburghmercy.org/homeless-services/pittsburgh-mercys-operation-safety-net/