CAMBRIDGE — When the chief of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital asked Dr. Jim O’Connell, then a senior resident, to join a new Boston program to bring health care to the homeless, O’Connell thought he was signing on for a year before heading into a career in oncology.
That was in 1985.
“As you get to know [the homeless], you start to hear their stories, and understand the overwhelming odds they’ve been facing so long,” he said Friday. “The people you would pass by ordinarily, thinking they were kind of rough, you start to understand that they are actually very courageously living with the terrible hand they were dealt. . . . You just get drawn into their lives.”
Twenty-seven years later, O’Connell — Dr. Jim, to his patients — received the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism Friday night from the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship.
He was honored for his work with the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program.
The program is the largest of its kind in the country and treats more than 11,000 patients every year, said Vicki Ritterband, program spokeswoman.
The program offers primary care, behavioral health services, and dental care. Case managers are available to counsel patients on job searches and housing.
Over the years, many of the street visits O’Connell made to patients have become house calls, as the program coordinates with organizations that place homeless people in permanent housing, said Ritterband.
For the homeless, the daily struggle to find food and shelter often trumps the need to find treatment for their maladies, and minor medical issues can turn life-threatening. Mental illness and drug addiction add to the turmoil. Doctor’s appointments, when made, are often broken.
Into this chaos steps O’Connell, 64, who has promoted the philosophy that doctors must bring health care to the streets and tailor it to the lives of the homeless they are serving.
He spends days and nights walking the streets of Boston with a team of caregivers, armed with a simple doctor’s bag: a blood pressure cuff, Tylenol, Motrin, Sudafed. He offers, always, a sandwich and a cup of coffee.
“I’ve seen him, at 1 o’clock in the morning, have a totally warm, friendly conversation with a woman sitting at Downtown Crossing in a beach chair with a small umbrella, with the temperature 35 degrees outside,” Stefan Kertesz, who worked with the Boston program from 1996 to 2002, said in an interview Friday.
“The tone he adopts is just, wow, it’s great to see you here. How can we help you?” Kertesz said.
Of O’Connell’s nighttime chat with the woman in the beach chair, Kertesz said: “He was not trying to administer a medical diagnosis at that moment.
“He was trying to build a relationship, so that when this woman had a need, she would trust him.”
The Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism is given to individuals whose lives and service have significantly improved the health of people in the United States or abroad.
Past recipients include Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush and, posthumously, Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Sargent Shriver.
A nonprofit organization, the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship is dedicated to training graduate students to provide socially conscious health care for underserved communities. Friday’s award was presented at the Royal Sonesta Hotel.
Evan Allen can be reached at