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Alumnus wins renowned prize

Christian Myers | Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Notre Dame’s service ethic doesn’t end at graduation. Just ask 1972 alumnus Dr. Jim O’Connell.

O’Connell, founder and president of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP) and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, was awarded the 2012 Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism.

According to the Albert Schweitzer Foundation’s website, past winners of the prize include Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush.

The renown and numerous accomplishments of the prize’s namesake, Albert Schweitzer, made receiving the award that much more meaningful, O’Connell said.

“To get this award was really nice. I really admire what Schweitzer did and what he stood for, and it is thrilling to receive an award named in his honor,” O’Connell said. “I especially like his idea that rather than what we write, we should be remembered by what we do; we should let how we live be our argument.”

He did not know he was being considered for the award until he was contacted and told he had won, O’Connell said.

“The nomination was unsolicited and they only notified me after they had made the decision. I had no idea it was happening prior to that,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell also received Notre Dame’s Dr. Thomas A. Dooley Award in 2003. He said the two physicians he most admires are Tom Dooley and Albert Schweitzer.

“Tom Dooley and Albert Schweitzer were legends while I was growing up. I also remember reading Schweitzer’s ‘The Quest of the Historical Jesus’ while at school,” he said.

O’Connell said his undergraduate experience at Notre Dame did much to shape his interest in social justice.

“I was blessed to be at Notre Dame during tumultuous times – I was there from 1966 to 1970 … I cherished my days at Notre Dame during these times because, even though it felt like the world was falling apart around us, the atmosphere at Notre Dame taught me to be reflective and to value social justice,” he said. “My time at Notre Dame instilled a desire to find out where I belong and how I could help people.”

O’Connell received the award for his work with BPCHP, a program that he helped found in 1985 and has worked for ever since.  

O’Connell said he was training to become an oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital when the hospital’s chief of medicine suggested he oversee the creation of a new health care program for Boston’s homeless population, which had funding but needed a full-time doctor.

“I am the founder entirely by serendipity,” he said. “I got derailed from my path by the advice of the chief of medicine and another doctor, Tom Durant.”

O’Connell said he originally intended to work for one year establishing the BHCHP, but instead remained with the program for 27 years and counting.

The most rewarding part of his work with BHCHP is hearing his patients’ personal stories, O’Connell said.

“You have the opportunity to hear their stories and the stories are really mind-blowing; they’ve overcome serious obstacles. You also get to see the courage with which they face adversity,” he said. “It’s a privilege to work with this population.”

O’Connell said he also relishes the demands the job places on his medical knowledge and abilities.

“From a non-moral perspective, I’ve enjoyed how challenging the medicine is. Many of my patients have unbelievably complicated medical problems that take ingenuity, skill and creativity to treat,” he said.

The most difficult aspect of his work is recognizing the limits of his ability to help, O’Connell said.

“You learn early on you’re only a doctor, you don’t have the power to create social change and eradicate poverty,” he said. “Most of us who enter this kind of work think we can change things quickly; learning I wasn’t able to change the world overnight was difficult.”

The BHCHP is the largest freestanding health care program in the country devoted to caring for homeless individuals, O’Connell said. O’Connell said this involved a great deal of growth since he founded it in 1985.

“I’ve been with the program since the beginning when there were only six or seven of us. Now we have 350 employees, including 17 doctors, 40 nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants, more than 60 nurses, and a large support staff,” he said.

The BHCHP operates daily clinics at the Boston Medical Center and Massachusetts General Hospital, O’Connell said. In addition, the program has opened its own 140 bed step-down hospital for patients who are too sick to return to shelters but do not need intensive care. O’Connell said many of these patients are receiving treatment for chronic diseases, recovering from surgery, or receiving end of life care.

He said the program also sends teams of doctors, nurses, and nurse practitioners to various homeless shelters around the city. O’Connell heads a team that cares for homeless patients who remain outside of shelters.

“My clinical life is spent going out into the streets to care for the homeless population outside of shelters,” he said.

The BHCHP teams go to the homeless people they care for rather than just maintaining a presence in hospitals because many of their patients cannot come to them, O’Connell said.

“If we wait for people to come to us, the pressures of homelessness – especially finding their next meal – will prevent them from attending to their health.”

As president of the BHCHP, O’Connell works on development, strategic planning and advocates for public policies on behalf of the program, he said. O’Connell said he was formerly the program’s director, but for the past 15 years has allowed a new director to run day-to-day operations while he serves as president and directly treats homeless patients as a physician.

O’Connell said he enjoys his current role within the BHCHP, especially since he can continue to actively practice medicine.

“I have kind of the ideal life, and I get paid for it,” O’Connell said. “I love being a doctor; it’s a fulfilling life.”

The BHCHP is one of 19 pilot programs started with funds from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trust, and is now funded by the Human Resources and Services Administration’s Bureau of Primary Health.

There are now 230 health care for the homeless programs around the U.S., including programs in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, which are based from the 19 pilot programs.

O’Connell said that since health care for the homeless programs have spread to nearly every major city in the U.S., the focus is shifting to adapting each program to its respective city and incorporating it into the established health care systems.

“The challenge now is being creative and becoming part of the mainstream health care system in the city. One of the first things I learned from homeless advocates is that it won’t work if it’s separate and looks like charity and there needs to be consistency – that means employees rather than volunteers,” he said.

O’Connell, who studied philosophy and theology at Cambridge after his four years at Notre Dame and did not begin medical school at Harvard until the age of 30, said students unsure of their future plans should not worry that they will miss out on a bright future.

“You have to listen to your heart and be patient; it took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do,” he said.

O’Connell also said students interested in public health should look to the needs of South Bend and other nearby communities.

“Look in the shadows of our ivory towers and you’ll find people in need of your help. You don’t have to look far afield to find a place where you can do some good,” O’Connell said.