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'Street doc' honored for work with homeless

Thursday, August 15, 2002

By Anita Srikameswaran, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Dr. James Withers, who has devoted his career to what could be dubbed street medicine, is one of 10 people in the nation to be awarded $120,000 by the prestigious Robert Wood Johnson Community Health Leadership Program.

The presentation will be made Sept. 24 in Washington, D.C.

Withers, 44, will receive $15,000 of the award for personal use, and said he may use those funds to pursue a master's degree in public health.

The rest of the award, $105,000, will go to Operation Safety Net, which was founded by Withers in 1993 to provide medical care for Pittsburgh's homeless people. The organization now has an annual budget of about $300,000 and takes care of about 900 people annually.

When he began a decade ago, Withers and a friend who was then homeless wandered down alleys, under bridges and into abandoned buildings to find people in need of medical attention. To put street people at ease, the Mercy Hospital internist carried his medical supplies in a backpack and tried to dress like his patients.

"I wore torn clothes and stuff like that," the doctor said. "After six months, the street guys began to ask me why I looked so bad," he added, laughing.

Other medical workers heard about what he was doing and volunteered to help, and Operation Safety Net grew wider.

"Doc Jim" still dons his backpack and goes "street walking," as he puts it, every Monday.

"I love the folks who share their lives with me and I learn from it all the time," he said.

Withers was aware that a colleague from Mercy Hospital's Domestic Violence Medical Advocacy Program, which he helped develop, had nominated him for the leadership award. A team from Robert Wood Johnson visited Pittsburgh to hit the streets with Operation Safety Net.

The doctor and nine others, including people from California, Oklahoma and North Dakota, were selected from 463 nominees.

Withers wants to use the $105,000 allocated for Operation Safety Net to teach workers more about street medicine and to institute measurement systems that would allow monitoring of the program's progress.

And there have been requests from other cities, such as San Diego, for help in developing their own safety nets.

"I imagine we'll get more now," Withers said. "We may be traveling a little bit or having folks come here."

His leadership of Operation Safety Net has brought him many accolades.

In 1997, Withers was named a Servant of Peace by a foundation associated with the Vatican. In 1994, he was one of six people in the country to be awarded an America's Award by the Positive Thinking Foundation.

In 1993, he was one of three national winners of the Jefferson Award, a public service medal.

Withers was partly inspired to practice this kind of medicine by his father, a family doctor who took him on house calls while he was growing up in Hanover, Pa. His mother was a nurse, and the family once lived in Central America to practice medicine.

A 1984 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Withers studied in India for two months during his medical education and met Mother Teresa during a subsequent visit to Calcutta. He has been to the Philippines to observe programs for street kids in Manila. Withers visits American cities with the same goal in mind: to learn as much as possible about street medicine.

"It's going to be emerging more and more as a real specialty," he said. "As more people are unable to afford health care and are living in more marginalized parts of society, there needs to be a component of our medical field that's dedicated to bridging those gaps."

Anita Srikameswaran can be reached at anitas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3858.

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