“You S.O.B. How Could You Let Me Live Like That?” A Question We All Should Answer

(6-25-18) Dr. James J. O’Connell has been a street doctor to Boston’s homeless for more than 30 years and is one of the most dedicated and compassionate caregivers whom I’ve been fortunate enough to meet. Over a recent dinner, he shared this story with me about his work at Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program.

A homeless woman, who was clearly mentally ill, rebuffed all attempts by Dr. O’Connell and his team to help her.  She would put spoiled milk, garbage or other offensive items around where she camped on the concrete to ward off people.

“We spent years on the overnight van trying to earn her trust despite the putrid and rancid barrier she built  around herself.  We were astonished and quite proud of ourselves when, after more than five years, she finally began to smile at us and accept our offers of sandwiches, soup and a blanket.”

One night she became threatening to passers-by, so much so, that the Boston police took her against her will to a hospital.

A year after she was removed from the street, Dr. O’Connell happened to be at an event where he spotted her.

He barely recognized her. She looked healthy, was smartly dressed, and appeared to be doing well mentally.

He approached her, smiling, complimenting her and greeting her as he would a good friend.

“You son-of-a-bitch,” she replied. “How could you let me live like that for ten years?”

It’s a question that frequently haunts him as he goes out each night to help those who are sick and homeless while respecting their civil rights.

It’s also an ethical question that each of us should ask ourselves. What can we do to help those in the shadows?

(Dr. O’Connell’s book is the author of STORIES FROM THE SHADOWS: Reflections of a Street Doctor. He was interviewed by Terry Gross for Fresh Air about his career.)

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.