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.



(page 3 of 3)

dr jim withers

Dr. Withers listens to Ron Painter’s chest before diagnosing him with bronchitis. 

Photo by Martha Rial

 

Of course, it wasn’t always so easy, Withers reflects. At first, before he was known to people on the streets, he was ignored, chased away and even threatened with violence. The memory of once having a shotgun pulled on him is “so raw for me,” Withers stresses. On top of that, he felt like an “outcast” among some of his former colleagues when sneaking off to treat homeless people at night.

Some expressed doubts about his career path—even his sanity—especially when he started dressing less like a physician and more like the people he served.

Withers resolved to concentrate on the people who needed his help, whom he had come to “love and care about,” even if it meant forgoing some of the trappings of a traditional medical career. In spite of the challenges of his profession and choosing a less than conventional career path, he and his former wife, Gayathri, successfully raised four children—Jonathan, 23, a scholarship student at Harvard University; Christopher, 24, a first-year medical student at New York Medical College; Gregory, 20, an undergraduate studying the Persian language at the University of Pittsburgh; and Jeneni, 15—in Wilkinsburg and sent them to a public school.

Withers drives a modest car. Throughout the course of two days’ worth of interviews, he doesn’t even wear a watch. The bookshelves in his office are lined with volumes by and about poets, revolutionaries and other rebels—Annie Dillard, Martin Luther King Jr., Che Guevara—but Withers didn’t find his inspiration in the pages of books. He grew up surrounded by people who cared about social justice.

As a child, Withers accompanied his mother, June, a nurse who made home visits and volunteered her time delivering Meals on Wheels. He also joined his late father, Dr. Donald Withers, who made house calls in their hometown near York, Pa. He says he found the example set by his parents to be “inspirational even before I had any medical knowledge.” The patients, he goes on to explain, “obviously loved my dad. It was very human. They were very comfortable with each other. It still sticks with me.”

Withers’s undergraduate experience at Haverford College, a small, elite liberal-arts school with Quaker roots and a tradition of social activism, reinforced the values he gained from tagging along with his father on rounds.

As soft-spoken and gentle a man as Withers is, he’s still taking a stand today, a stand against indifference, intolerance and the attitude that, in medicine: “It’s all about me, and you as the patient need to come to me on my terms.” The point of practicing street medicine, he says, is the opposite: “I’ll honor who you are and come to you.”

Wouldn’t it be so much easier to see patients in a clean, well-lit place, like an emergency room or doctor’s office? Of course, Withers says. “I would love to have my patients show up in a place with an examining table. You have to be adaptable and fluid, though, or you’re not relevant.” Fewer homeless people are being treated on the streets or in the hospital emergency departments than in years past. Operation Safety Net has helped countless people obtain care from primary-care physicians in the private office setting. Yet some local doctors are finding that they enjoy the challenge of street medicine.

Dr. Michelle Barwell, a psychiatrist, started working with Withers in the late ’90s when she was a medical resident. “The work is hard,” she stresses, but it’s rewarding for those who can learn to “find joy from small gains.”

Barwell recalls a woman with bipolar disorder who, with the proper medicine, got off the streets and moved into her first apartment. She also remembers a man she treated for years who wore nothing but camouflage—until one day when he came into her office wearing regular clothes. “Everybody got excited,” she says. “It’s the small stuff like that. It keeps you going despite some of the disappointments.”

Not all of Operation Safety Net’s accomplishments are small joys: According to one study from the 1990s, the group’s work with the homeless saves between $200,000 and $300,000 per year in emergency-room costs at local hospitals.
Building on Operation Safety Net’s success in Pittsburgh, Withers hopes that street medicine will take off as a global movement, and he says he already sees the signs of that happening.

Many of Withers’s former medical students (he’s a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine) have started careers of their own in street medicine. Dr. Patrick Perri, one of his former students, is now helping lead a team of 16 full-time street doctors and 30 nurses through Boston’s Healthcare for the Homeless Program.

Another offshoot of Withers’s work is the annual International Street Medicine Symposium (ISMS), a conference he and Operation Safety Net program director Linda Sheets co-founded in Pittsburgh in 2005 so that street medicine practitioners worldwide could meet and share best practices. Withers sums up his feelings this way: “I think we’re reaching a point in our society where we have to decide whether we’re in it together or going our separate ways. Street medicine has the capacity to challenge conventional prejudice, or it could pull us together.

“Perhaps,” he goes on to say, “it could facilitate a new and unified vision of community and commitment to each other.”
 


Geoffrey W. Melada is a frequent contributor to Pittsburgh magazine. This article is dedicated to his father, the late Gary A. Melada, M.D.
 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in April

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in April

This month's best bets in the ’Burgh.
Take a Hike: 10 of the Best Trails in the Pittsburgh Area

Take a Hike: 10 of the Best Trails in the Pittsburgh Area

Lace up your sneakers or hiking boots and head outdoors for 10 great walks for spring.
412 Food Rescue: Revolutionary Repurposing

412 Food Rescue: Revolutionary Repurposing

Local nonprofit organization 412 Food Rescue is taking food that otherwise would be tossed aside and connecting it with those in need through-of-the-moment technology.
Spring Fashion: The Height of White

Spring Fashion: The Height of White

Fashion is white haute this spring with the best looks from local stores.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

‘The Chainsmokers’ Forgot Spellcheck for Pittsburgh Concert

‘The Chainsmokers’ Forgot Spellcheck for Pittsburgh Concert

A mistake at the end of the duo's sold-out show earned them some good-natured teasing on social media.
So Where are the Best 'Burbs in the Pittsburgh Area?

So Where are the Best 'Burbs in the Pittsburgh Area?

Pittsburgh-based Niche crunched a whole lot of data to rank the best suburbs in the country, the state, and around here.
Affordable Housing Part of Civic Arena Site Redevelopment

Affordable Housing Part of Civic Arena Site Redevelopment

The Pittsburgh Penguins and a St. Louis developer hope to eventually build 1,000 residential units near PPG Paints Arena.
Watch: Phil Kessel has a Mini-Me – And He's Too Cute

Watch: Phil Kessel has a Mini-Me – And He's Too Cute

Have the Pens have found their new meme for the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in April

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in April

This month's best bets in the ’Burgh.
Take a Hike: 10 of the Best Trails in the Pittsburgh Area

Take a Hike: 10 of the Best Trails in the Pittsburgh Area

Lace up your sneakers or hiking boots and head outdoors for 10 great walks for spring.
412 Food Rescue: Revolutionary Repurposing

412 Food Rescue: Revolutionary Repurposing

Local nonprofit organization 412 Food Rescue is taking food that otherwise would be tossed aside and connecting it with those in need through-of-the-moment technology.
Spring Fashion: The Height of White

Spring Fashion: The Height of White

Fashion is white haute this spring with the best looks from local stores.
Restaurant Review: Pork & Beans

Restaurant Review: Pork & Beans

The latest restaurant from the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group brings Texas-style smoked meats and more to Downtown.
Daytripping: Brave the Cave

Daytripping: Brave the Cave

Go subterranean at Laurel Caverns, the largest cave in Pennsylvania.
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


‘The Chainsmokers’ Forgot Spellcheck for Pittsburgh Concert

‘The Chainsmokers’ Forgot Spellcheck for Pittsburgh Concert

A mistake at the end of the duo's sold-out show earned them some good-natured teasing on social media.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Scratch Food & Beverage Has a New Executive Chef

Scratch Food & Beverage Has a New Executive Chef

Brandon Blumenfeld introduces an American gastropub menu at the Troy Hill bar.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

These spots are tailored for couples who are looking for a simple, chill night out on Valentine’s Day (or any other day). If your significant other isn’t the type to be wooed by expensive wines and chocolates, this is the list for you.

Comments


Dive Bar & Grille Expands to South Side, Remains Charming

Dive Bar & Grille Expands to South Side, Remains Charming

The latest outpost of the small, Wexford-born chain isn't flashy, but offers good beer and grub.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
A Life Well Lived: Dan Rooney's Humility and Humanity

A Life Well Lived: Dan Rooney's Humility and Humanity

Delivering the Homily at Rooney's funeral, Cardinal Donald Wuerl acknowledged a longstanding Rooney philosophical belief: “You can get anything done if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Pittsburgh on a Plate

Pittsburgh on a Plate

The way to a beer lover’s heart is mapped out on notNeutral’s plate, which highlights Pittsburgh breweries (and other points of interest) across the city.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
A Refreshing Action Flick and a Redundant Thriller

A Refreshing Action Flick and a Redundant Thriller

Reviews of "Free Fire," "Unforgettable" and "The Promise," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Planning Proposals: The Element of Surprise

Planning Proposals: The Element of Surprise

This couple’s proposal story really takes the cake.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Rare Plants, Accessories, Up for Grabs at 2017 Garden Marketplace

Rare Plants, Accessories, Up for Grabs at 2017 Garden Marketplace

Hosted by the Penn State Master Gardeners, the free event, which includes the local daffodil society’s annual show, features exclusive and hard-to-find flowers, shrubs, fruit and vegetable plants and other garden accessories from a variety of vendors.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
A-Rod to Talk Baseball and Steroids at Slippery Rock

A-Rod to Talk Baseball and Steroids at Slippery Rock

Considered one of the greatest baseball players of all time, Alex Rodriguez also is one of the league's more controversial stars.

Comments