From One Year to a Lifetime

Mission | April 18, 2024

What Dr. Jim O’Connell thought would be just one year of his life turned into his life’s work.

Tracy Kidder, in his book Rough Sleepers: Dr. Jim O’Connell’s Urgent Mission to Bring Healing to Homeless People, takes readers into the life of Dr. O’Connell and this work with Boston’s homeless population. Dr. O’Connell will speak at St. Paul on April 21.

Dr. Jim O’Connell was about to finish his residency. He had just received a prestigious fellowship in oncology at Sloan Kettering in New York and knew the opportunity would change his life. Yes, his life was about to change, but not in the way he had envisioned.

In the 1980s, homelessness was quickly on the rise. When Boston received a grant from the Robert Johnson Wood Foundation to create a program to bridge the gap between medical treatment and Boston’s homeless population, Dr. O’Connell was the doctor approached to manage and maintain the program. He chose to defer his fellowship with Sloan Kettering for one year, and the day after he completed his residency, after three years of 110-hour work weeks, he started what he believed would be just one single year, only 365 days, of running this program.

After that first year was done, Dr. O’Connell realized he wasn’t ready to leave this work or this community behind. Instead, he packed his essential items into a knapsack, hopped into an outreach van, and took to the streets of Boston, armed with medical treatments and supplies, food, blankets, and a listening and empathetic ear to the city’s ‘rough sleepers,’ those who chose to sleep outside instead of in cramped and crowded shelters.

“This is what I was trained for. I wanted to take care of people who were sick. And, oh, my God, have I landed in a world where people are sick,” he said.

Led by the practical guidance of the dedicated nurses at Pine Street Inn, Boston’s largest homeless shelter, Dr. O’Connell developed a different approach to engaging with those who would become his patients, one that was outside of the typical doctor’s approach. Those first 365 days turned into more than 14,600 days, and during this time, Dr. O’Connell explored the changing medical landscape, navigating the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Last year, Pulitzer-prize-winning author Tracy Kidder chronicled the unparalleled work of Dr. O’Connell and his mobile outreach clinic in his book Rough Sleepers: Dr. Jim O’Connell’s Urgent Mission to Bring Healing to Homeless People. Kidder explores the beginning of Dr. O’Connell’s career, the first ‘temporary year’ of this doctor’s unexpected work, the retraining it took to find unconventional approaches to connecting with these rough sleepers, and how that one year turned into 40. Kidder outlines the five years he spent observing Dr. O’Connell and his team of devoted medical personnel and shares the stories of Dr. Jim and the people of Boston who changed this doctor’s life. Rough Sleepers is available in the Book Corner for $17.50.

From head to toe: Caring for unhoused people
Sunday, April 21, 4 p.m., St. Paul Sanctuary
Dr. O’Connell will share his experiences and stories with St. Paul and the Quad Cities community. The event is free and open to the public. Sponsored by St. Paul and Augustana College.

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