Sisyphus With a Stethoscope

“How are you?”

Those three words, inflected just so, are how James Joseph O’Connell, MD, always greets his  clients, Boston’s homeless—or as he calls them, borrowing a 19th century British term, “rough sleepers.”

In our cynical times, it’s easy to assume that this greeting is mere technique, an Oprah-ism. But as one learns more about “Dr. Jim” from Tracy Kidder’s new book, Rough Sleepers: Dr. Jim O’Connell’s Urgent Mission to Bring Healing to Homeless People, a more ingenuous explanation emerges.

He really means it. He really cares. He really wants to know how the other person is, regardless of, or perhaps because of, how unkempt, unbathed, or unsober, that other person—with the emphasis on “person”—might be.

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