Tracy Kidder
September 14, 2023

A Doctor Offers Hope, Healing to Boston's Homeless

In his new book, Tracy Kidder highlights Dr. Jim O’Connell's mission to provide support to Boston’s unhoused community.
by Nancy Hitchcock

The word “saint” sometimes comes up in discussions about Dr. Paul Farmer and Dr. Jim O’Connell— both Harvard Medical School graduates who spent decades providing health care to highly vulnerable populations. These two doctors had much in common, including that each was the focal point of a book written by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Tracy Kidder ’63.

Kidder, who has written 12 books, says he chose to write about Farmer and O’Connell because he was inspired by their dedication to their causes. When selecting a topic for his books, he says, “I’ve always gotten interested in the person first. I’ve always liked the idea of trying to depict virtue in the world.

Kidder wrote Mountains Beyond Mountains (Random House) featuring Farmer (1959–2022), who founded the nonprofit Partners In Health to improve health care in poor communities around the world.

In his latest book, Rough Sleepers (Random House), Kidder shares the story of O’Connell and his mission to provide medical relief and support to Boston’s unhoused community. When O’Connell was finishing his residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, he was asked to help establish a health-care system for the homeless for one year. He agreed, and never left. In 1985 O’Connell cofounded Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. Today, nearly 40 years later, O’Connell has provided medicine, support, friendship, food, and cups of coffee to thousands of Boston’s unhoused, many who continuously sleep on the streets and are sometimes called “rough sleepers.”

As research for his book, Kidder accompanied O’Connell and his street team as they drove through Boston at night checking on people in need. He learned a lot about their patients, their stories, and their relationship with the doctor.

“We need to recognize that these people on the streets are like you and me, except with complex issues,” says Kidder. “Jim has spent his life with people who needed his skills more than anyone else, and who were extremely grateful for having him.”
Photo credit:
Fran Kidder

Categories: Alumni, Magazine

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