A Man and His Mission: Dr. Jim Withers

Dr. Jim Withers, of Operation Safety Net, makes house calls to the homeless and envisions street medicine as a mission of mercy on a global scale.



Standing on the Boulevard of the Allies on a January evening, Dr. Jim Withers prepares to embark on a mission—the same one he does every Monday: to find and treat some of the homeless people living in the area.

Photo by Martha Rial

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Needles of cold rain are falling on this January night, and Dr. Jim Withers is preparing to make his rounds in the unlikeliest of places.

Tonight, Withers is seeing patients—not in a hospital, clinic or convalescent home, but rather on the streets of Pittsburgh. In a few minutes, he and Mike Waoka Sallows, an outreach worker with Operation Safety Net, a ministry of Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, will leave their Uptown headquarters and embark on the same mission they lead nearly every Monday night: finding and treating Pittsburgh’s homeless where they live.

Toting medicine, bottled water and peanut-butter sandwiches made by the Sisters of Mercy at their Motherhouse in West Oakland, the team will climb the South Side Slopes, walk under bridges downtown and venture into abandoned buildings in the city’s North Side looking for patients.

Fifty-three-year-old Withers, a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, started practicing in the emerging field of “street medicine” in May 1992. Withers realized he needed a guide to the streets, and after some searching, he met Sallows, 54, who helped him build trust and establish street cred with the local homeless population.

For six years prior, Sallows, whose Iroquois tribal name, Waoka, means “Good Hunter; Indeed It’s True,” was making connections with the homeless and hoping to find them a doctor—someone to treat the cases of frostbite, pneumonia, foot wounds and other medical problems.

Withers and Sallows became “fast friends” in 1992, recalls Sallows as he climbs into a late-model Jeep, slightly rusting but still reliable after 100,000 miles. The pair’s first stop this evening is downtown along the Boulevard of the Allies. In front of the Red Door at St. Mary of Mercy Church, 10 heavily bundled men and women are waiting to see Withers, jogging in place and blowing on their hands for warmth.

As he crosses the street, a stethoscope hanging around his neck and a backpack full of medications slung over the right shoulder of his brown-leather jacket, Withers is first spotted by 58-year-old Charlie Barringer. “Is there a doctor in the house? I’m dying of a broken heart,” calls out Barringer, wearing a red sweatshirt, a wool Steelers hat and a smile full of missing teeth. Everybody laughs.

Now homeless after spending one-third of his life in a state prison for burglary and other offenses, Barringer lives a life that is anything but comical. The former North Side resident confides that he suffers from depression and post-traumatic-stress disorder and has recently contracted bronchitis. Still, he tries to maintain a positive outlook: “When I was doing time, I learned a Native American saying, a philosophy: ‘Laugh once; feel good. Laugh twice; feel twice as good.’” He adds: “Every day above ground is a good day.”

Withers and Operation Safety Net’s 16-member full-time staff of social workers, case managers, physicians, nurses and outreach workers (not to mention dozens of volunteers), do their best to keep patients like Barringer above ground—literally and figuratively. Downtown’s Severe Weather Emergency Shelter, located in the Smithfield United Church of Christ and operated by Operation Safety Net, is only open mid-November to mid-March on nights when the temperature drops to 25 degrees. But on other nights, like tonight, when it’s just “freezing-ass cold,” in Sallows’s words, Operation Safety Net provides medical care along with sleeping bags, gloves and boots.

Barringer proudly points to his pair of Timberland boots, courtesy of Operation Safety Net, and to the binder of medical records he keeps to help himself and his caregivers keep track of his dizzying array of medications. (Operation Safety Net also maintains electronic medical records.) Not every person out here is such an ideal patient. After giving Withers a big hug, Noreen, a middle-aged woman, confesses that she’s still a heavy smoker and has developed asthma. Withers scolds her, employing a bit of reverse psychology. “Keep smoking. You’ll keep doctors employed,” he tells her, handing her an inhaler.

Soon, the duo is off to the McDonald’s on Smithfield Street, where 10 more of Withers’s regular patients are waiting. In the backseat of the Jeep, Withers explains that, when the shelter’s closed, this McDonald’s is a refuge for people on cold nights. Some managers will kick out the homeless, but others, he says, will kindly look the other way.

The latter sort must be on duty tonight, as most of the crowd inside seems to be waiting for the doctor. Everybody’s sitting so quietly that the atmosphere feels like the waiting room of a regular doctor’s office—except for the smell of french fries and the frequent beeping of the cash registers.
 

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