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Boston’s legendary doctor for the homeless marks 30 years

Dr. Jim O'Connell signed copies of his new book, “Stories from the Shadows,” last month at Porter Square Books in Cambridge. Bill Brett for the Boston Globe

As a young man, the doctor made a promise. He would do this kind of work for one year. It was, he believed, all anyone could stand.

Practicing medicine on the street is too taxing. It pushes its practitioners to the edge of their physical and emotional limits. One year, he told himself, and then it’s time for oncology.

What’s that old saying? Man plans and God laughs.

Years later, the doctor, Jim O’Connell, found himself on a train, re-reading a book about Sisyphus, the Greek mythological figure doomed to roll an enormous boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down – a cycle repeated into eternity.


“Oh, my God! This is about my life,’’ O’Connell remembers thinking. “I’m doing nothing but pushing this rock up the hill. But then I started seeing a different side. I think the work I get to do is a blessing. I am unencumbered by routine, and the people we take care of really appreciate it. It’s a gratifying way to live.’’

I sat with Dr. O’Connell this week in his office just steps away from the entry to the old city morgue on Massachusetts Avenue. Mileposts are approaching, and I wondered what they meant for the city’s legendary physician to the faceless.

Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, which he co-founded and has helped run, marks its 30th anniversary this year. O’Connell has celebrated his 67th birthday. And he’s published his first book, “Stories from the Shadows,’’ a remarkable collection of raw and real tales about his homeless patients and the stories they’ve entrusted to him.

I sensed a valedictory moment. But first, O’Connell wanted to talk about what he’s seen, what he’s learned, and to forever banish canonization efforts he’s come to loathe.

A chorus of city leaders would disagree, but O’Connell insists he’s no saint.


“I am aware of the things that are broken and that I’ve screwed up and the people I’ve hurt and all of that,’’ said the soft-spoken street doctor, his hair now nearly white. “So when I hear saint, I want to say: Not on your life!’’

In fact, O’Connell prefers not to work alongside self-proclaimed saints and zealots. Too taxing. Instead, he wants to work with regular people. And that’s how he treats his patients – the “rough sleepers’’ – whom he treats from Pine Street Inn’s van, or at an all-day clinic at Mass. General Hospital, or under the bridges and on the steam grates of Boston.

“One of the reasons I feel blessed to have this job is because to take care of this group of people you have to take time,’’ he said. “If you don’t take time it’s not going to work. But time is the one thing not given to us in the usual medical world. If I were back in the regular clinic, I’d have to be seeing people every 10 to 15 minutes and crank though it. That would fail in our world.’’

Turns out the doctor can be quite lyrical in examining the contours of that world.

“These are the lives I’ve stumbled upon,’’ he writes in his new book. “Not orderly or reasoned, and not the way lives are supposed to be. Many would challenge the patience of Job and make us wonder whether any loving God would allow such serendipity.’’


O’Connell worries that the streets are getting meaner. The shelters of our city were overflowing this summer as never before, he said. Sometimes he finds himself angry at a society that allows people to descend into the hell of homelessness, that depressing intersection of fractured welfare, justice, education and housing policies.

There’s work to be done. So O’Connell’s valedictory will have to wait. He’s found a way to become more doctor, less administrator.

And you have to look no further than his book’s dedication to detect a new source of light behind his eyes: “To Gabriella,’’ it says. She is 23 months old, an unexpected gift and the apple of her dad’s eye.

“It’s unbelievably delightful to have such a blessing,’’ he said. “She’s just full of wonder.’’

So is her father.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at