Hearing Stories from the Shadows With Dr. Jim O’Connell


College Guidance Officer Mrs. Foley and Montrose Juniors with Dr. Jim O'Connell, BHCHP President.

Gabby Landry '18, Editor-in-Chief

Most of us could not fathom walking the streets of Boston and stopping to care for the most overlooked: the homeless.  Yet that is what Dr. James “Jim” O’Connell does every day.  Since his mid-thirties, he has served with Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP), a nonprofit organization dedicated to “provide or assure access to the highest quality healthcare for all homeless men, women and children in the greater Boston area.”  

Dr. O’Connell recently published Stories from the Shadows: Reflections of a Street Doctor, a compilation of stories of the people on the streets.  As writer Debra Bradley Ruder put it, writing the book was Dr. O’Connell’s chance “to celebrate their livesbut also to underscore the crushing weight of poverty.”

On Thursday, October 6, St. Ignatius Church hosted a program to interview Dr. O’Connell about Stories from the Shadows, to which Guidance Counselor Mrs. Foley brought a group of Montrose girls. The lower level of the church was filled with people of all ages. As the program began, I sat with five other juniors: Hannah Marino, Sophia Sardegna, Maggie MacIsaac, Olivia Goughan, and Olivia Hastie.  The program had two main parts: an interview with Dr. O’Connell, and a question-and-answer portion.  Afterwards, his book was available to purchase.  

Dr. O’Connell shared fascinating insights throughout the interview.  He told the audience about his circuitous route to the medical field.  After graduating from Notre Dame in 1970 and receiving a high draft lottery number that kept him out of Vietnam, he studied philosophy and theology in England, taught high school in Hawaii, and pursued a doctorate with political theorist Hannah Arendt in New York.  Later, during a trip to the Isle of Man, he encountered a biker who had been injured in a motorcycle accident.  Comforting the biker during his suffering transformed Dr. O’Connell.  He found his calling.  At 30, he entered Harvard Medical School.

After a three-year residency in internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. O’Connell joined the staff at the Nurses’ Clinic at Pine Street Inn.  He initially intended to stay for one year, then move on.  However, his plans soon changed.  Captivated by the complexity of the homeless of Boston, he needed at least another year with the organization.  One year turned into 30.  Dr. O’Connell helped found and now serves as President of BHCHP.

“During the first two months, I soaked feet at the clinic and talked to the people,” Dr. O’Connell shared.  He added that the nurses in charge wanted him to be not an imposing doctor, but a humble servant of others.  Dr. O’Connell said that when he first arrived, he was far from humble.  Serving the homeless in this wayliterally, at their feetgave him a different perspective on the true spirit of service that BHCHP embodies.

Dr. O’Connell shared stories of the people he’s met on the streets.  George was a “failed Marine with five kids. He had a sign that said, ‘For five dollars, you can hit me as hard as you want.’”  This anecdote struck a chord with the audience.  Dr. O’Connell continued, “I’ve learned that the first impression is invariably completely wrong.  There are layers upon layers in people.”

During the program, Dr. O’Connell also shared some misconceptions about the homeless.  He said, “This is a very complicated population and a very complicated problem….It’s not easy to understand this population.”

Montrosians who attended immensely enjoyed the program.  Olivia Hastie ‘18 said, “I thought the program was really moving. Dr. O’Connell is a true inspiration. He made so many valid points and comments that stuck with me. One of them was something along the lines of ‘Oncologists are the most compassionate and kind doctors in this world.’”  Olivia Goughan ‘18 commented, “I thought it was really interesting to hear firsthand from someone who has worked with and formed relationships with homeless people. We always hear stuff in the news, but this is someone who experienced it, and the program was eye-opening!”

Olivia Hastie added, “I would definitely attend more of these programs, and would encourage anyone to go. He made me deeply consider a career that will link me to service, and I’m very excited to read his book!”

Dr. O’Connell ended with an anecdote from his early years at BHCHP.  He recalled one nurse telling him, “This has to be about social justice, not about charity.  Charity is scraps from the table.  Social justice is a seat at the table.”  Dr. O’Connell truly embodies this spirit of social justice throughout his everyday work with the people on the streets. Thank you, Mrs. Foley, for sharing this opportunity with Montrosians!