Operation Safety Net: Dr. Jim Withers Serves in the Streets of Pittsburgh
November 9, 2015
By Gary Loncki
Jim Withers, M.D., likens his work on the streets of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to what the Sisters of Mercy were doing in Ireland in the mid-19th century.
Since 1992, Withers has traversed areas under bridges, abandoned buildings, streets and alleyways, seeking people in Pittsburgh who are homeless, to show them compassion by offering a listening ear, support, medical care and hope.
“It’s kind of like what Catherine McAuley [founder of the Sisters of Mercy] and the Sisters of Mercy were doing on the streets of Dublin, Ireland, in 1831 when they first came to the United States in 1843, serving the needs of the poor,” said Withers, the founder and medical director of Operation Safety Net, a ministry of Pittsburgh Mercy Health System (PMHS) and Trinity Health in the tradition of the Sisters of Mercy.
According to PMHS, Operation Safety Net serves those who are chronically or transitionally homeless in Allegheny County by providing medical care, comprehensive social services, case management and housing follow-up. The ministry creates avenues for those who are homeless to access health and social services necessary to improve the quality of life.
Most of those served by the ministry have a history of mental health and substance-use disorders or intellectual disabilities. Many have experienced profound trauma, abuse and isolation. Some are U.S. military veterans. Withers calls Operation Safety Net’s response to those needs “street medicine.”
On Monday nights and occasionally on weekdays—with a stethoscope around his neck, a backpack full of medicines and a compassionate ear—Withers is joined by an outreach specialist and a medical student to embark on a mission of mercy, going where few others will. Similar to the original “walking nuns,” Operation Safety Net teams visit traditionally underserved Pittsburgh neighborhoods, including the Hill District, North Side, South Side and McKeesport. They make personal visits to people who are homeless five days a week and more frequently in times of extreme cold or heat.
“You really see yourself in the people. They give you love and help you to realize what’s really important in life,” said Withers, who on weekdays makes home visits to people who formerly lived on the streets and for whom the ministry has provided housing. He also sees individuals who have no health insurance at Pittsburgh Mercy Family Health Center, an integrated primary care clinic and medical home operated by PMHS in Pittsburgh’s South Side.
Withers is a welcome sight to those who need a doctor; if not for him and a team of outreach specialists, case managers, medical students and volunteers, many of his clients would never have access to proper medical care.
“I feel like I really am lucky to have found something to do that closely follows what Jesus did,” said Withers, who completed medical school training at the University of Pittsburgh and a residency in internal medicine at The Mercy Hospital of Pittsburgh, formerly part of PMHS. He credits his training at Mercy and his early years with PMHS with providing “good soil” for his eventual full-time ministry.
“When you go out and see people who are hopeless—basically the lepers of our day—it affects and deepens your faith,” he said.
Withers grew up in rural Pennsylvania in an environment of service, often accompanying his
father, the late Dr. Donald Withers, a family physician, on house calls. His mother, June, was a former registered nurse. Young Withers spent three summers on medical-mission trips to Central America.
For a time, he worked in a hospital environment but sensed his calling elsewhere: the streets where those who are underserved live. The doctor needed to make “house calls” to be where the people were, what he called “reality-based” health care.
“To do that, I have to go outside of the marvelous medical machine and go directly to the people.”
And to do it well, he said he needed a local “classroom” to serve people who were socially excluded and stubborn enough to not necessarily do what he, as a doctor, advised them to do.
“To meet their needs, I had to stretch myself and meet them on their terms,” he said.
Withers traveled to India in 1993 to see how healthcare workers ministered to the poor and returned to Pittsburgh with new insights for his ministry.
Since then, his street ministry has grown to include a multi-disciplinary team of more than 30 professionals and volunteers. Together, they continue to embrace the mission of Catherine McAuley. Their work has expanded to include partnerships in the Pittsburgh area and abroad. Locally, more than a thousand people who were once homeless now have homes as a direct result of Operation Safety Net. Volunteers from other countries and U.S. cities have followed him on his rounds to take home what they learned. He has also visited several major cities in the United States and abroad to begin street-medicine initiatives and gain insights from each experience.
“You need to step into the unknown without knowing how it will work out. You watch it unfold. It is miraculous,” he said.
Dr. Jim Withers is a finalist for the CNN 2015 Hero of the Year. To vote for Dr. Withers, go to www.cnnheroes.com, select Dr. Withers and enter your email address or link to Facebook. Votes can be cast once a day, every day through November 17.
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