Engagement Tips from a Street Doctor

Adapted from an Interview heard on NPR’s Fresh Air, September 29. 2015

Back in 1985, James O’Connell had just completed medical school in Boston Massachusetts and took an assignment to provide medical care to Boston’s homeless population. When he arrived at the shelter, one of the nurses told him to take two months and do nothing but treat the patients with a foot bath. I’m sure he was wondering why an MD was soaking feet but he did what the nurse told him. What he learned was that the homeless wouldn’t trust you or come in for services unless they felt the doctor was taking time for them, was really listening to them and was present with them. Through his time giving the homeless a foot bath, they had conversations about what was going on and how they were feeling. They built a relationship. The doctor made suggestions for care and the patients trusted him to do what he said. Many were able to get better and get into treatment to get off the streets. That same nurse also told Dr. O’Connell, “Don’t judge, these people have been through hell.” He learned to set aside judgement and listen to their story. What started out as an assignment turned into 40 years as a street doctor.

This may seem like a strange correlation but when I look at this story through an engagement lens I see 3 simple messages:

  • Slow down
  • Get to know your team
  • Show them you care

When the interviewer asked Dr. O’Connell what kept him working with the homeless for all these years he said that he felt it was a connection with his own brokenness that kept him going. When we can see ourselves in others, we can recognize struggles and joys and that connection keeps us going.

I hope we can all slow down and get to know each other and our teams and find commonalities to show them we care.

Happy Friday,


For more information: Dr. James O’Connell is the author of a new memoir, Stories From the Shadows: Reflections of a Street Doctor. To hear his interview on Fresh Air, click here.

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