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Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life

Tufts Medical Students Talk Healthcare for the Homeless with Common Book Author

Friday, September 30, 2016

The medical school's common reading program, supported by Tisch College, gives incoming students insight into pressing healthcare issues and often inspires them to serve.

Dr. James O'Connell

On September 12, Tisch College and The Tufts University School of Medicine (TUSM) hosted a lecture and book signing with Dr. James O’Connell, President of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program and author of Stories from the Shadows: Reflections from a Street Doctor, which served as the Common Book for incoming Tufts medical students.

The book is a collection of stories from Dr. O’Connell’s 30 years caring for homeless people throughout the Boston area. In his visit to Tufts, he shared with TUSM students and faculty some of the challenges, and the satisfactions, of providing care for the homeless.

Thousands of people in the Boston area become homeless every year, including the chronically ill, children, families, and the elderly. Homeless people often do not have access to a doctor or healthcare facility where they can seek treatment, or the services they do have access to are cost-prohibitive. Stories from the Shadows brings to light many of the challenges homeless people face, the consequences of being invisible to the healthcare system, and what doctors can do to provide care to those who cannot access it themselves.

“Dr. O’Connell’s talk resonated deeply with my reasons for pursuing medicine,” says Navneet Ramesh, M20, a first-year medical student who attended the event. “I admired how he was able to go above and beyond to help a community that is forgotten by the healthcare system. Understanding the practices and social norms of the homeless definitely required patience on Dr. O’Connell’s part, and his success demonstrates the immense benefit of simply listening to patients and hearing their stories. I hope to build the same level of trust with my patients in the future.”

Ramesh is one of many medical students who are drawn to TUSM because of its emphasis on educating doctors who will contribute to civic life as health professionals. Through the Tisch College Tufts University School of Medicine Community Service Learning Program, all Tufts medical students perform at least 50 hours of community work as part of their education. Initiatives like the Common Book program serve as an introduction to this commitment, providing knowledge and inspiration as well as a call to action.

“I love that community service is a central part of the TUSM curriculum. Medicine is a commitment to service, and working with the diverse communities in the Boston-area will only prepare us to tackle the scientific and social hurdles that accompany any disease,” says Ramesh.

In conjunction with Dr. O’Connell’s lecture, the medical school organized a sock drive. Clean, white socks are a staple of homeless healthcare; they can reduce the risk of skin infection, prevent frostbite, and foster good hygiene, but they are among the items of clothing least donated to homeless shelters. The TUSM sock drive was a resounding success: 287 pairs of socks—along with new gloves and warm sweatshirts—were donated to Dr. O’Connell’s organization, the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, which serves the entire greater Boston area.

“The sock drive was a tangible way to support the extraordinary care that Healthcare for the Homeless provides adults who often have pressing health care needs but can be invisible to our health care system,” says Dr. Aviva Must, Dean of the Public Health and Professional Degree Programs at TUSM. “People with unstable housing are at a disadvantage when it comes to foot care—weather, worn-out shoes, and, in some cases, diabetes, can put feet at risk of infection.  We were thrilled to contribute white socks as an expression of appreciation of Dr. O’Connell and his inspiring collection of stories.”