in conversation with James O’Connell
Celebrating the release of
RECORDED: Monday, March 6, 2023
“I couldn’t put Rough Sleepers down till the last page. Kidder’s writing sidesteps labels like ‘homeless’ to reveal the humanity of those who live on the streets. As with Mountains Beyond Mountains, I am left in awe of the human spirit and inspired to do better. That is Kidder’s genius.” — Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone
“The nightmare of homelessness can seem both overwhelming and slightly abstract to the safely housed. That abstraction vanishes in the pages of Rough Sleepers. Tracy Kidder has reported the hell out of important stories before, but never more finely and relentlessly. It’s a story full of hard questions, a story with many heroes.” — William Finnegan, author of Barbarian Days
The powerful story of an inspiring doctor who made a difference, by helping to create a program to care for Boston’s homeless community — by the Pulitzer Prize–winning, New York Times bestselling author of Mountains Beyond Mountains
Tracy Kidder has been described by The Baltimore Sun as a “master of the nonfiction narrative.” In Rough Sleepers, Kidder shows how one person can make a difference, as he tells the story of Dr. Jim O’Connell, a gifted man who invented ways to create a community of care for a city’s unhoused population, including those who sleep on the streets — the “rough sleepers.”
When Jim O’Connell graduated from Harvard Medical School and was nearing the end of his residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, the chief of medicine made a proposal: Would he defer a prestigious fellowship and spend a year helping to create an organization to bring health care to homeless citizens? Jim took the job because he felt he couldn’t refuse. But that year turned into his life’s calling. Tracy Kidder spent five years following Dr. O’Connell and his colleagues as they served their thousands of homeless patients. In this illuminating book we travel with O’Connell as he navigates the city, offering medical care, socks, soup, empathy, humor, and friendship to some of the city’s most endangered citizens. He emphasizes a style of medicine in which patients come first, joined with their providers in what he calls “a system of friends.”
Much as he did with Paul Farmer in Mountains Beyond Mountains, Kidder explores how a small but dedicated group of people have changed countless lives by facing one of American society’s difficult problems instead of looking away.
Tracy Kidder photo courtesy of Fran Kidder; James O’Connell photo courtesy of the publisher
Tracy Kidder has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Robert F. Kennedy Award, among other literary prizes. His books include Mountains Beyond Mountains, Strength in What Remains, The Soul of a New Machine, House, Among Schoolchildren, Old Friends, Hometown, and A Truck Full of Money.
About Dr. James
Dr. James O’Connell graduated summa cum laude from the University of Notre Dame in 1970 and received his master’s degree in theology from Cambridge University in 1972. After graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1982, he completed a residency in Internal Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). In 1985, Dr. O’Connell began fulltime clinical work with homeless individuals as the founding physician of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, which now serves over 13,000 homeless persons each year in two hospital-based clinics (Boston Medical Center and MGH) and in more than 60 shelters and outreach sites in Boston. With his colleagues, Dr. O’Connell established the nation’s first medical respite program for homeless persons in September, 1985, with 25 beds in the Lemuel Shattuck Shelter. This innovative program now provides acute and sub-acute, pre- and post-operative, and palliative and end-of-life care in the freestanding 104-bed Barbara McInnis House. Working with the MGH Laboratory of Computer Science, Dr. O’Connell designed and implemented the nation’s first computerized medical record for a homeless program in 1995. From 1989 until 1996, Dr. O’Connell served as the National Program Director of the Homeless Families Program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Dr. O’Connell is the editor of The Health Care of Homeless Persons: A Manual of Communicable Diseases and Common Problems in Shelters and on the Streets. His articles have appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, Circulation, the American Journal of Public Health, the Journal of Clinical Ethics, and several other medical journals. Dr. O’Connell has been featured on ABC’s Nightline and in the feature-length documentary Give Me a Shot of Anything. He has received numerous awards, including the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award in 2012 and The Trustees’ Medal at the bicentennial celebration of MGH in 2011. Dr. O’Connell has collaborated with homeless programs in many cities in the USA and across the globe, including Los Angeles, London, and Sydney. Dr. O’Connell’s book Stories from the Shadows: Reflections of a Street Doctor was published in 2015 in celebration of BHCHP’s 30th anniversary. Dr. O’Connell is president of BHCHP and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.