Dr. O’Connell, Advocate for People Experiencing Homelessness

Two weeks ago, Street Medicine Detroit and the Neighborhood Service Organization had the honor of hosting Dr. Jim O’Connell for a special seminar on medical respite. Dr. O’Connell helped to found the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program almost 30 years ago and still serves as its president. His training in internal medicine allows him to recognize and treat the many afflictions he sees in his patients, and, perhaps just as importantly, his incredibly kind and unassuming demeanor elicits trust from his patients and encourages others to follow in his expertly paved path. After the seminar, Jane Philip, Director of External Fundraising, accurately remarked that Dr. O’Connell is “a man with a gentle spirit, and the genuine care and concern that he has for his work was very evident. He harbors a quiet strength, one that can be seen in the integrity of his work and principles by which he serves. There is no doubt that each one of us aspires to be a physician of his capacity.”

Ankita Chatterjee, Communications Coordinator, added, “I found him extremely approachable…I noticed him going out of his way to make each person he talked to feel comfortable. He always had a smile on his face.” Through his speech and his more personal interactions with our group, it became clear that he truly values the work he does and is interested in helping other organizations improve their operations. Through his talk he was able to “[tell] a story alongside making a complex issue like medical respite easier to understand. It was also a wonderful look into how an organization can grow to best serve a population.”

According to Jane, some of the most heavily emphasized lessons from the seminar included holding on to hope and optimism in one’s mission and values; being flexible with skills and training in order to adapt to patients’ needs, including learning directly from patients; and the notion that, in caring for the under-served, one must make sacrifices—time, money, or resources may not be readily available in this type of work, but the work itself is incredibly worthwhile and fulfilling, and it helps people who have often been made to feel ignored and marginalized by the mainstream health care system.

Dr. O’Connell stressed that he is still figuring out how best to accomplish this work over time. While he was certain not to idealize his role in Boston, he did inspire others to consider careers focused on helping those who may not otherwise receive adequate medical and social care. He helped us to understand why this type of work is so vital, and he left us with many important questions to reflect on.

Justin Petrusak, LMSW, QMHP, Clinical Supervisor at NSO, also helped us to reflect on our view of homelessness and encouraged us to consider many of the social aspects of caring for people experiencing homelessness. He made us more mindful of the connotation of labeling someone as a “homeless person,” explaining that homelessness is a housing status rather than a personal attribute. The term “homeless person” holds negative implications for people’s hopes, dreams, strengths, and weaknesses. Experiencing homelessness simply means that someone lacks a permanent place to live and is likely going through one of the hardest, most stressful times of his or her life—which is precisely where we meet our patients.

Amrit Basi, Co-Director of Patient Care, summarized the event by stating that “Dr. O’Connell’s message is one of kindness and acknowledgment that our patients, above all else, are people and deserve to be treated with dignity and the utmost respect. He said he could see himself in many of his patients. Once you realize that the patient you are treating could have been you, you develop an overwhelming sense of compassion and empathy.” Over time, we are all learning that we share a great deal in common with our patients, and we are humbled and inspired to learn more each time we recognize these similarities.

We are so grateful to have shared such insightful moments with Dr. O’Connell, and we are certain to carry the lessons we’ve learned from him into our future careers.

Sarah Bommarito, MSII, Communications Director
with Allison Pianosi, MSII, President