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O’Connell redefines health care to the homeless

Dr. Jim O’Connell is winner of the 2012 Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism.

Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe

Dr. Jim O’Connell is winner of the 2012 Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism.

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Jim O’Connell has been called the “closest thing Boston has to a fully functioning saint” — the Hub’s own equivalent of Mother Teresa. So when the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship awarded the doctor its annual prize for humanitarianism last month, it wasn’t necessarily a surprise. Through his work with the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, a clinical outreach agency he helped found 27 years ago, O’Connell has redefined what it takes to provide medical care to patients who have no homes.

In the early years, that meant providing first-rate care to patients wherever they might be, by handing out medicine in alleyways, portioning out soup under bridges, and administrating check ups on park benches. Today, O’Connell and his team still provide those services on the streets, but also at two hospital-based clinics, dozens of Boston shelters and agencies, and at the Jean Yawkey Place, a 77,000-square-foot medical complex that provides health care exclusively to the homeless.

Because of his successes here, O’Connell is frequently asked to help out beyond Boston’s city limits, in places such as Los Angeles and London. As an ambassador for Boston, O’Connell personifies the best aspects of our city: charity, tenacity, and innovation.

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