Dr. Jim O’Connell went to Harvard Medical School at the age of 30. After finishing his residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, he was on his way to an oncology fellowship when the city of Boston received a grant, along with 18 other cities, to improve their health care system for the homeless.
At the suggestion of his chief, O’Connell took what was supposed to be a one-year position as the founding doctor of the new health care program for Boston’s homeless. That turned into a 32-year career as head of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP).
Photographer John Baynard has recently been shadowing O’Connell, documenting everything from his street work to the exam rooms.
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Dr. Jim O'Connell talks to a patient
O’Connell’s exam room is the streets of Boston. He and his team of fellow physicians, psychiatrists, nurse practitioners, recovery coaches and outreach workers spend their days walking around downtown, making “house calls” where his patients live -- in parks, under bridges and on the outskirts of town.
Dr. Jim O’Connell helps a patient
The medicine is complicated and unpredictable, but O’Connell now knows most of the people, where they sleep, if they are missing and who to ask if they are.
Dr. Jim O’Connell examines a patient
’O’Connell also sees patients at the Barbara McInnis House, BHCHP’s 24/7 medical respite facility for patients who are too ill for the streets or shelters, but not sick enough for a hospital stay.
Patients sometimes stay for an extended period of time while they receive treatment.
A few years ago, one of O’Connell’s longtime patients asked him to take her picture. She got dressed up, put lipstick on and did her nails.
When he asked why she wanted a portrait taken, she said it was for her two daughters. If they ever came to look for her after she died, she wanted them to see her presentable enough to know how much their mother loved them.
This first photo, shown here, inspired his other patients to have their pictures taken.
After the first portrait, O’Connell was shocked as more and more of his patients asked for their own.
“The next day I came in, there were 22 people in the building who asked me to please take their portraits,” he said.
Growing more personal
Before the original photo, O’Connell said he avoided overly personal photos. But now he takes photos of his patients all the time.
“I took pictures from the very beginning because I wanted to teach medical students,” he said. “But I only took pictures of feet and legs ... I was always very meticulous about avoiding a face because I didn’t want to be invasive on people.”
Dr. Jim O'Connell and a patient
Baynard’s photos put O’Connell in front of the camera for a change. He documents everything from O’Connell’s street work to the exam rooms.
Here, O’Connell consults with a patient in downtown Boston.
Dr. Jim O'Connell helps a patient
Baynard’s photos capture intimate moments between O’Connell and his patients, everything from the happy to the sad.
Focusing on the positive
O’Connell focuses on the positives for his patient portraits.
“Many people, especially when they are in McInnis House, they’re healthy,” he said. “They’ve got clothes on, they’re cleaned up. They want a picture showing that they are a human being.”
Dr. Jim O'Connell & patient
“I remember this one guy who keeps that picture. When he comes into the emergency room all a mess, he’ll show it to the doctor and say, ‘This is who I really am,’” O’Connell said.
At left, O’Connell meets with one of his patients in downtown Boston.
The portraits now hang all throughout McInnis House.
“When people get admitted now, if their photo isn’t here they’ll say ‘Hey where is my portrait?’ So we have to constantly rearrange them,” O’Connell said.
"They want to be seen"
“They want to be seen,” O’Connell said of his patients.
“You get this sense that -- when you look at the mortality and what’s the legacy of your life -- homeless folks have that same issue. It’s really profound and I have a huge respect for it now,” O’Connell said.
Dr. Jim O’Connell in Boston
In September 2015, O’Connell published a book about his experiences working with Boston’s homeless community called “Stories from the Shadows: Reflections of a Street Doctor.”
To learn more about O’Connell and the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, click here.