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 Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Goin' to the Chapel – Or Not?

Goin' to the Chapel – Or Not?

With so many options in and around the city, every couple can find the special space that feels just right — whether they’re looking for nature, rustic charm, fairytale romance, stained-glass beauty, treasured religious ritual or classic tradition.
Underground Pittsburgh: Explore our City of Tunnels

Underground Pittsburgh: Explore our City of Tunnels

Delve below the surface to explore the underground areas that serve as vital pathways to our region.
Kitchen Roots: Ruta, Solomonov and Ehland

Kitchen Roots: Ruta, Solomonov and Ehland

Chefs who grew up in Pittsburgh are shaping the culinary scene in other cities across the country — and gaining national recognition in the process.
Restaurant Review: Gaucho Parrilla Argentina is Smokin'

Restaurant Review: Gaucho Parrilla Argentina is Smokin'

The meat-centric restaurant in the Strip District is helping to redefine Pittsburgh's dining expectations.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Steelers' DeAngelo Williams Scores as Daughters' Hair Stylist

Steelers' DeAngelo Williams Scores as Daughters' Hair Stylist

In a pair of TV ads, watch the Steelers' running back tackle styling the hair of his two adorable daughters.
Greenlight for Girls Encourages Hands-On STEM Learning

Greenlight for Girls Encourages Hands-On STEM Learning

The international organization partnered with local materials science company Covestro to encourage scientific curiosity for girls.
Heinz Releases a ‘Wiener Stampede’ on The Super Bowl

Heinz Releases a ‘Wiener Stampede’ on The Super Bowl

Dozens of dachshunds wearing hot dog costumes star in what may be the cutest commercial this year.
Grove City College Team ‘Takes the Cake!’ on Cake Wars

Grove City College Team ‘Takes the Cake!’ on Cake Wars

Two former freshman roommates created a cake that was part sculpture, part spectacle to win $10,000 on the popular Food Network series.

Sign Up for the 412 e-Newsletter

 

Our new, daily e-newsletter is curated by the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine and is designed to give you the very best Pittsburgh has to offer -- delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign me up!
* Email
 First Name
 Last Name
  * = Required Field
 
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Goin' to the Chapel – Or Not?

Goin' to the Chapel – Or Not?

With so many options in and around the city, every couple can find the special space that feels just right — whether they’re looking for nature, rustic charm, fairytale romance, stained-glass beauty, treasured religious ritual or classic tradition.
Underground Pittsburgh: Explore our City of Tunnels

Underground Pittsburgh: Explore our City of Tunnels

Delve below the surface to explore the underground areas that serve as vital pathways to our region.
Kitchen Roots: Ruta, Solomonov and Ehland

Kitchen Roots: Ruta, Solomonov and Ehland

Chefs who grew up in Pittsburgh are shaping the culinary scene in other cities across the country — and gaining national recognition in the process.
Restaurant Review: Gaucho Parrilla Argentina is Smokin'

Restaurant Review: Gaucho Parrilla Argentina is Smokin'

The meat-centric restaurant in the Strip District is helping to redefine Pittsburgh's dining expectations.
Cranking Out Old School Valentines Sealed with a Quirk

Cranking Out Old School Valentines Sealed with a Quirk

In Lawrenceville, a love for letterpress leads to a business whose greeting cards reach audiences across the country.
Pittsburgh's Third Renaissance and Complaints from 2007

Pittsburgh's Third Renaissance and Complaints from 2007

This third Renaissance has allowed us to be spectators as Pittsburgh changed from a city suffering the damages wrought by the collapse of its steel industry to a vibrant, active place known for its academic, medical and technology sectors.

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Steelers' DeAngelo Williams Scores as Daughters' Hair Stylist

Steelers' DeAngelo Williams Scores as Daughters' Hair Stylist

In a pair of TV ads, watch the Steelers' running back tackle styling the hair of his two adorable daughters.

Comments


Pittsburgh, only cooler
PittGirl: Yikes! Imagine This Instead of a Fountain at the Point

PittGirl: Yikes! Imagine This Instead of a Fountain at the Point

City leaders considered many options for Pittsburgh's confluence including something that looked like it was designed by the Jetsons, or an absolutely bonkers, batpoop insane idea by the one and only Frank Lloyd Wright.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Wigle Whiskey Ripe for Expansion with Threadbare

Wigle Whiskey Ripe for Expansion with Threadbare

The Strip District distillers will launch a hard cider business this fall.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
7 Best Restaurants for College Students in Pittsburgh

7 Best Restaurants for College Students in Pittsburgh

Easy access from universities, wallet-friendly prices and really good food make these our favorite choices for the university set.

Comments


Head to 'Quick and Shameless' For an Unpredictable (and Essential) Night of Pittsburgh Comedy

Head to 'Quick and Shameless' For an Unpredictable (and Essential) Night of Pittsburgh Comedy

The LGBTQ-friendly variety show offers one of the city's most unusual (and often unforgettable) lineups of comedic talent.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
It's Simple This Time, Super Bowl 50 Won't Even be Close

It's Simple This Time, Super Bowl 50 Won't Even be Close

The Panthers are going to get to the Broncos eventually. When that happens, Peyton Manning is going to be forced to throw it. And once that happens, it’s going to get ugly.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Delicate Pieces for the Harsh Winter

Delicate Pieces for the Harsh Winter

Lighten up your look with a cheerful necklace.

Comments


Sean Collier's Popcorn for Dinner

The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
George Clooney, Jane Austen, Nicholas Sparks and Some Zombies Walk Into a Multiplex

George Clooney, Jane Austen, Nicholas Sparks and Some Zombies Walk Into a Multiplex

Our reviews of "Hail, Caesar!," "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" and "The Choice."

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Sugar and Spice: Cookie Table Contest Winners

Sugar and Spice: Cookie Table Contest Winners

Pittsburgh has it all: a beautiful skyline, breathtaking bridges and the most gorgeous cookie tables we’ve ever seen.

Comments


The latest tips and trends to refresh your home.
Pillow Talk: Pittsburgh's Skyline Inspires New Design Line

Pillow Talk: Pittsburgh's Skyline Inspires New Design Line

Check out the new pillow collection from local interior designer Zach Mitchell. Plus, get the scoop on The Pittsburgh Christmas Carol Tour.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Mock Crime Scene to be Held at Waynesburg University

Mock Crime Scene to be Held at Waynesburg University

The event is for high school students who are interested in criminal justice, law enforcement and forensic science.

Comments