A Career Based On Kindness To Boston’s Homeless: An Inspiring Example For Us All

During a two minute clip, one of my favorite humanitarians explains why he washed the feet of homeless Bostonians. 

(12-24-20)  For Dr. James J. O’Connell, it began during his residency by washing the feet of a homeless man.

One homeless client wondered aloud how skilled of a doctor O’Connell was if he had been assigned such a humbling task.

But it was that simple act of kindness which opened his eyes to the importance of treating individuals who are homeless as people of worth and launched his career as a street doctor to Boston’s homeless.

I was delighted when CBS’s Sunday Morning show featured Dr. O’Connell recently during a segment called Promoting the Power of Kindness.The eight minute segment raises questions about whether kindness can be taught or is a born trait for some.

I met him when he joined the board of directors of the Corporation For Supportive Housing, a national leader in building housing and developing programs that help individuals in need live independently. (If you want to be impressed read Dr. O’Connell’s bio at the end of his blog.) 

I’ve written before about Dr. O’Connell and his work at the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program.

In 2015, he published Stories From the Shadows: Reflections of a Street Doctor  a remarkable book that was marketed as a memoir, but really isn’t one. It is more of a diary about men and women who have crossed paths with him since 1985  when he decided to spend a stint inside what then was New England’s largest and oldest shelter in Boston.

He intended to stay only a few months before moving to what surely would have been a rewarding and profitable career in oncology. He not only stayed working as a doctor on the streets, but two years later helped form the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. Scores of homeless men and women in Boston are better because of it.

Many of the stories that Dr.O’ Connell shares in his book are grim and end badly for those who come to him seeking help. But this is the brutal reality of life on the streets and it would have been a lie to window dress the obstacles and incredible sadness that Dr. O’Connell encounters day-after-day or to put a happy face on what is a national scandal and ongoing tragedy.

What is inspiring and offers us both hope and happiness during this holiday season is Dr. Connell’s seemingly unlimited compassion and dedication to helping those “lost in plain sight, and forced to live on the fringes of society.”

Watch the two minute segment above and see for yourself the power of kindness.

Street doctor James J. O’Connell, M.D.

About Dr. O’Connell

Dr. O’Connell graduated summa cum laude from the University of Notre Dame in 1970 and received his master’s degree in theology from Cambridge University in 1972. After graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1982, he completed a residency in Internal Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. In 1985, Dr. O’Connell began fulltime clinical work with homeless individuals as the founding physician of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, which now serves over 11,000 homeless persons each year in two hospital-based clinics (Boston Medical Center and MGH) and in more than 45 shelters and outreach sites in Boston. With his colleagues, Dr. O’Connell established the nation’s first medical respite program for homeless persons in 1985, with 25 beds nested within the Lemuel Shattuck Shelter. This innovative program now provides acute and sub-acute, pre- and post-operative, and palliative and end-of-life care in BHCHP’s 104-bed Barbara McInnis House.

Working with the MGH Laboratory of Computer Science, Dr. O’Connell designed and implemented the nation’s first computerized medical record for a homeless program in 1995. From 1989 until 1996, Dr. O’Connell served as the National Program Director of the Homeless Families Program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Dr. O’Connell is the editor of The Health Care of Homeless Persons: A Manual of Communicable Diseases and Common Problems in Shelters and on the Streets. His articles have appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, Circulation, the American Journal of Public Health, the Journal of Clinical Ethics, and several other medical journals.

Dr. O’Connell has been featured on ABC’s Nightline and in a feature-length documentary entitled “Give Me a Shot of Anything.” His first book, Stories from the Shadows: Reflections of a Street Doctor, was published in 2015 and featured on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He has received numerous awards, including the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award in 2012 and The Trustees’ Medal at the bicentennial celebration of MGH in 2011. Dr. O’Connell is president of BHCHP and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.


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.