Dr. Jim Withers traded his scrubs in for a grungy jacket and baseball cap, and took to the streets of Pittsburgh with a simple idea: the best way to care for the homeless is to treat them where they live.
Before his first night out on the streets, Withers got two pieces of advice: "Don't dress like a doctor, and don't act like a jerk."
Over two decades later, he is still following that advice as he teaches medical students and volunteers how to care for patients living on the street.
Equipped with splints, bandages, cough medicine, inhalers, vitamins, antibiotics and pain relievers, Withers and his team travel through the streets of Pittsburgh five nights a week. He estimates he’s treated over 1200 homeless a year since 1992.
“One of the very first people I encountered was an 85-year-old homeless guy," Withers said. "His legs had got so bad that he actually would get maggots in them."
Withers said the encounter taught him that in order to effectively treat the homeless, you must put yourself in their shoes. "We would have to stretch ourselves, and care enough to stretch ourselves, into their world, into their reality," he said.
Withers and his team have helped create street medicine programs similar to theirs in over 85 communities throughout the world, spanning five continents.
Their vision is simple: “Everybody matters. We need to look out for the people that are the most ostracized in our own communities.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that Dr. Withers was from Philadelphia. Dr. Withers is from Pittsburgh.