When Jim Withers started to work on the street to provide medical care to the homeless, he didn’t know anyone else who did it.
“I just took a back back and did medical care,” he said.
But in 1993 on a trip to Calcutta, India, that all changed. There, he met doctors working in the poverty-stricken streets and slums—and also had the chance to meet Mother Theresa.
“It was amazing how we had the same problem solving and I got determined to connect those kinds of people,” Withers of Forest Hills said. “Over the years, people started coming to Pittsburgh and I started going elsewhere. It’s exciting when these people meet because they tend to feel isolated in their communities. You just get validated.”
Withers became determined to make street medicine a field of its own in health care.
“It raises questions that have not been answered,” he said “It challenges people. In every case, it has the capacity to improve communities and help education. The more we give students the chance to proactively get out and work with people, they become agents of change. It’s a long time coming.”
In 2005, Withers was able to get funding from Glaxosmith-Kline, which allowed him to help create the first ever international street medicine symposium. The eighth annual symposium will take place Sept. 26 in Salt Lake City. Participants from Asia, Europe, S. America, and students from all over the world attend.
Three years ago, Withers helped to start the Street Medicine Institute, which allows him to travel to other communities to help them start similar programs that resemble Operation Safety Net.
“I try to walk the streets of every place that wants to do this,” Withers said. “We do a lot of consulting with groups as well all over the world.”
Withers hopes to gain more funding for the Street Medicine Institute to make it the home of street medicine around the world.
“If it gets funding, we will be able to do a lot more to really promote this kind of work,” he said. “People want it in many places and they are asking for it. It’s like bicycling down a ski slope—it goes so fast and mobilizes people.”