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Honorary Degree Citation - James J. O'Connell, M.D.

Friday, May 26, 2017
James J. O'Connell, M.D.
Doctor of Public Service

Compassionate healer. Powerful advocate for the homeless. Heroic man for others.

Dr. Jim O’Connell, you took to the streets more than three decades ago to bring healing and hope to the most vulnerable among us. You have worked tirelessly to bring the best medical care to society’s displaced people. Your tremendous efforts have raised the visibility of the homeless and demonstrated the strong impact one dedicated doctor can have on the plight of so many. You have inspired physicians in Boston and beyond to follow your compassionate example to more fully understand and effectively treat the highly complex and extremely challenging medical needs of the men, women and families who have no place to call home.

As founding physician and president of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program since 1985, you have led the nation’s largest, most comprehensive nonprofit health care network for people living on the streets. Your innovative medical programs reach more than 12,000 homeless individuals each year and serve as a worthy model for similar programs around the world. You helped to initiate the nation’s first medical respite program for homeless people. With computer scientists at the Mass General Laboratory, you designed this country’s first computerized medical record system for a homeless program.

You unexpectedly found your “perfect career” as you graduated from Harvard Medical School. You deferred a prestigious medical fellowship for one year that somehow became 30. Instead, you joined a new outreach initiative in Boston where you made house calls to treat people without homes. As a new doctor, you literally worked your way up from the bottom. You washed homeless patients’ swollen, blistered feet. You soaked their limbs, listened to their life stories and gained their trust. You saw the brokenness in their humanity, the courage in their will and, in the best Jesuit tradition,  the dignity in each person. You found your purpose, your passion and a highly unconventional medical career on the streets of Boston. 

Your important work has been the subject of documentaries, news articles and other media attention. In 2015, you published your first book, Stories from the Shadows: Reflections of a Street Doctor. You edited “The Health Care of Homeless Persons: A Manual of Communicable Diseases in Shelters and on the Streets.” Your in-the-trenches experiences taught you that homeless patients suffer first from neglect. AIDS, diabetes, tuberculosis, pneumonia and even frostbite can ravage the homeless, body and soul, if left untreated or further compromised by mental illness.

You bring your patients warm food, clean socks and soft blankets, along with medical treatment. As a Harvard Medical School faculty member, you are teaching the next generation of physicians to value compassion and connection by including interactions with homeless patients in their rotations. You still catch a ride in Boston’s Pine Street Inn van to treat your patients in shelters or on the streets. Your decades of dedication to healing the homeless have been recognized with an Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award and the Massachusetts General Hospital Trustees’ Medal, among many other honors.

That all may know of our great esteem for you and our strong support for the vital work you do on behalf of the homeless and disenfranchised among us, the College of the Holy Cross confers upon you this day the degree, Doctor of Public Servicehonoris causa.