Staying in Touch with My Humanity

JIm and Dave May 2005 Roberto Clemente Bridge PittsburghI will be the first to admit it. Even though I am a “child of the sixties”, my personal and professional life have generally followed the straight and narrow. Yet, I always felt motivated by the challenging words and actions of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr, St. Teresa of Calcutta, and Paul Farmer. And, what about the admonition from the New Testament: “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, so you do unto Me”? Even my high school teacher charted my trajectory with the adage “To whom much is given, much is to be expected”.

So, I committed my life to service, both as a Family Physician, and as a community volunteer. I immersed myself in cancer prevention, HIV care, rural health care inequities, and medical education. Homelessness was never on my radar screen until…

Fast forward to March 2005. At that time, I was faculty at West Virginia University. Among many roles, I was serving as an adviser to a group of medical students. One day, I was approached by a young man from Pittsburgh who had seen a TV segment on a doctor who makes house calls in the field to persons experiencing unsheltered homelessness. Like many idealistic students, he insisted that our student group should develop a similar program in our small city of Morgantown. I was skeptical and balked, thinking “I don’t know anything about people experiencing homelessness, and I am not sure I want to!” [Disclaimer, my frontal lobes’ higher executive function fortunately prevented me from actually saying this out loud].

But student motivation and persistence wore me down, and I challenged them to find out more about this anomalous physician. To my surprise, three weeks later, they had arranged for Dr. Jim Withers to speak to our medical school. The auditorium was packed with 90 students, and by the end of the hour, we were on fire. The end result was the successful development of the first student driven outreach program in the US.

Little did I know that being pushed beyond my comfort zone would lead to a radical commitment to join a healthcare revolution. Jim’s passion and humble servitude were the very things I needed to get back in touch with my core values. Little did I know that I would join him in the early stages of a movement that has coalesced world wide into the Street Medicine Institute.

I have had the privilege of seeing Jim’s vision become reality in ways that have exceeded my expectations. I was present in the Fall of 2005 when about 30 of us gathered and agreed to meet annually in a spirit of support and sharing of best clinical practices. What then arose was the Street Medicine Institute that has now grown into a premier nonprofit organization. Over the past 17 years, there have been challenges, but the Street Medicine Institute and its board members have held true to the values of its earliest days. As a board member, I have been inspired and humbled by the work of so many. I have been transformed and, in the process, I have been able to find the true meaning of my life.

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