L3 Leadership Podcast Transcriptions: Dr. Jim Withers, The Homeless Doctor, On Hugging Lepers And Making A Difference

By June 19, 2017Transcripts

Please enjoy this transcript of this episode with Dr. Jim Withers. It was transcribed and therefore might contain a few typos.

Dr. Withers: 00:00 When you give a hug to someone who has advanced leprosy, it’s, I would highly recommend it if you can ever give a good hug to someone with advanced leprosy that, it’ll be good for your soul.

Doug Smith: 00:11 This is the L3 Leadership Podcast, episode number 152

Doug Smith: 00:18 What’s up everyone? Welcome to episode number 150 to l3 Leadership Podcast. My Name’s Doug Smith and I’m the founder of L3

Doug Smith: 00:24 Leadership where leadership development company devoted to helping you become the best leader that you can be. In this episode you’re going to get to hear a talk that was given by Dr. Jim Weathers, founder of Operation Safety Net at one of our L3 Leadership breakfast. And in his talk he shares his story and the leadership lessons that he’s learned along the way. Jim’s often referred to as the homeless doctor because he actually is a doctor who dresses up as a homeless person and actually goes out and administers and treats the homeless, under bridges, which is incredible. And I know that this talk is really going to challenge you. And if you enjoy the talk, you can also listen to our Q and a with Jim. In episode number 153 and I have encouraged you to listen to both. If you’re new to this podcast, this podcast is intended to help you grow your leadership skills and we’re committed to bringing you three or four episodes every month to help you do that. One will always be a talk from our breakfast. One will be an interview that we do at the high level leader, and then once a month you’ll get a personal leadership lesson by me. If you’ve been listening to the podcast for awhile, it would mean the world to us if you would subscribe and leave a rating and review on iTunes. It really does make a difference in getting the word out about the podcast. So thank you in advance for that.

Doug Smith: 01:30 I want to thank our sponsors, Henne Jewelers, and Henne Jewelers are a jeweler owned by my friend and mentor, John Henne. My wife and I got our engagement and wedding rings through Henne Jewelers and they’re just an incredible company. Not only do they have great jewelry, but they also invest in people. John gave Laura and I a book to help us prepare for our marriage and he’s been investing in me as a leader and a husband and a father now for many years and I’m just so appreciative of him. Again, great organization. If you’re in need of a good jeweler, check out Hennejewelers.com. I want to thank our other sponsors, Alex Tulandin real estate resources. Alex is a full-time realtor at Keller Williams Realty whose team is committed to providing clients with highly effective premier real estate experiences throughout the Greater Pittsburgh region. He’s a member and a supporter of L3 Leadership and he’d love the opportunity to connect with you.

Doug Smith: 02:13 You can learn more about Alex and the work that he does at pittsburghpropertyshowcase.com. With that being said, let’s jump right into Jim’s talk a little bit more about Jim. In 1992, he started dressing up as a homeless person and actually going out and treating the homeless, under bridges as a doctor, which is just incredible. So he started at that time practicing street ministry. And since then has created a worldwide movement of street medicine where people do this all over the world and he’s literally changing the entire world on a daily basis. He’s given a Ted talk. He was recently recognized as one of CNN heroes. He’s just an incredible leader, very humble down to earth. And He leads by example. I love this man. I loved his talk and enjoy it and I’ll be back at the end with a few announcements.

Dr. Withers: 02:55 Thank you. It’s great to be here. I don’t speak as loud as you do apparently. Can y’all hear me? Okay. So I do, I thoroughly appreciate this invitation and the concept of leadership development and, kind of ironically, as I was getting ready for this, I realized I don’t usually speak straight to the heart of leadership. My talk is generally more for medical folks or communities to think about, the services and who’s getting them and who’s not. But I think that that does connect with leadership and I’m hoping that if I kind of walk through my usual talk here, and with the discussion that, some of these things that are really important to me, we’ll come out and then I will be able to maybe pick your brains about, your thoughts on leadership because I know you’re not here randomly, that you’re all, have a hard for making this world a better place and developing leadership in that regard.

Dr. Withers: 04:08 So, this is a earlier version of me here. I want you to kind of look at that, body language, which in this picture it happens to be me, but I have seen this many, many, many times in my career. And, I’ll come back to that basic image, with what is happening here, is really interesting. There’s, this guy, his name is old John. That’s how we knew him on the street. And, in a, we’re washing his feet because they needed it. And, there were some other medical issues there that could be better addressed that way. John was really interesting because when I started working on the street, a lot of the guys and women out there, particularly the guys were a little bit too proud to really directly ask for help.

Dr. Withers: 05:15 And yet it, cause a lot of pride, a lot of, you know, awkwardness about, beginning to do medical work with folks who hadn’t been used to anyone caring about them. And, they’ve been through a lot of trauma. But what they could do is they began saying, you know, doc, I’m okay, but you better look, look, you know, Eva doesn’t look too good or old John, you, you should check on him. So old John Actually, probably didn’t realize it, but he, he was really bonding us and the folks on the street together because we could all care about him. So it was really interesting how indirectly serving his needs made us more of a street community. I to talk about leadership, I think you almost invariably have to talk about your, your, your childhood, your, you know, how you were raised and, and those sorts of things.

Dr. Withers: 06:16 So, I have to always, you know, give credit to my dad. This is a, the real Dr. Withers. Donald Withers who was a country doctor. I grew up in York County, Pennsylvania, rural, rural Pennsylvania. And he would take me with him. I didn’t take this picture, but you know, he would take me with him on rounds in and house calls in his little VW. We’d go up into the hills of Pennsylvania and we would visit people. And there was something about the way that he related to the folks that were in need that even as a kid really impressed me. They’d give him a cup of coffee, they’d give me a glass of milk and I could see that my dad was doing important medical things, but I call so sense that the people that he went to visit, we’re enormously grateful.

Dr. Withers: 07:08 And there was a lot of love between, my dad and these folks. And so, you know, those, those experiences really had a big impact on me. Equally, oh, I forgot I added this one. He later told me that one of his influences was this life magazine article that he read when he was young, which portrayed a day in the life of a, a country doctor. And, actually, that could be my dad. Therein many ways had the same black doctor’s bag and that even though he was academically very good, you went to Washington, you, he, this is what he wanted to be. He wanted to be a doctor that went to where people were. My mom equally important to me, this is her in the lights are a little break, but in the blue jeans jacket here, I’m holding the young person that my dad’s examining and I was running around in the background here.

Dr. Withers: 08:04 So as a family, we did medical work in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Saint Lucia, and for me, that was normal. You know, families did that. You went, you, you served people, wherever they were. And it was at these experiences actually that really made me feel like I want it to be a doctor. I wanted to be in the healing field, cause my dad making horse calls in the highlands of Guatemala. And then as I was looking at these pictures, I realized this is that same article. Here’s the doctor making house calls and in his practice in rural Colorado, this is me on the right here, my first mission trip with my cool black shorts. And my brother’s there. The other kids are, actually missionary kids. And then Luis, a little friend that I made in Nicaragua, so this long time ago.

Dr. Withers: 09:01 But, these are some of the formative things that I went through in medical school I had this hankering to get back overseas to immerse myself in, in that kind of experience. And I had an incredible couple of months in India, south India, in Mysore. And I saw stuff that you’d never see in this country. And, one of the groups of course that had a huge impact on me were folks with leprosy, advanced leprosy, and we would make rounds from one part of the hospital campus to another. And, when we, my favorite was when we walked over to the leprosy unit. And what really impressed me, I was fascinated with the disease and some of the certain corrective surgeries and things that they were doing. But it was the human thing. The, when you give a hug to someone who has advanced leprosy, it’s, I would highly recommend it if you can ever give a good hug to someone with advanced leprosy that, it’ll be good for your soul because there’s so much love and gratitude that comes from a person who’s been stigmatized

Dr. Withers: 10:17 and excluded really from society. I don’t think it’s any mystery why in the Bible, you know, leprosy was such an important point in so many of the stories because the sense of not being one of us have of having something ugly and shameful about you, really is a very, very, very deep experience. It’s way more than, you know, mycobacterium Leprie. It’s a state, a social state as well. So those, those folks, we’re just a huge influence on me. The other group of people that had a big impact on me were women that were coming into the hospital and they were burned. They would come into the, into the hospital and their, their bodies would be burned and they, they were, so for Lauren, they would lay in the bed, no one would visit them, they would stare at the ceiling and often they would die.

Dr. Withers: 11:20 And after a while I be, I’d be in to seeing these women. And I, I asked my supervising doctor there and what’s going on. And he said, well, it’s the stoves and the Saris that it’s very dangerous, the Saris catch on fire. So for a couple, for a couple of days I was going to invent a stove that was safe and these women wouldn’t have to die. But I asked around, which is always a good thing to do. And they just, people said, no, no, no, no. It’s the, husband’s families. They’re asking for more Dalry money and if they don’t get it, then they throw kerosene on the women and they burned them. So I was shocked and saddened and I thought about how awful it is to be in a reality that, is so hopeless where no one, they believe no one cares and nothing can be done.

Dr. Withers: 12:25 And it was underscored by the fact that my so-called teacher, I had some wonderful teachers over there, mostly surgeons, but this medicine guy was lying to me. I don’t know if you know the star wars movies, these are not the drones you’re looking for. It was kind of like, this is not the reality that we deal with. And that offended me. That there was a sense that reality, the reality of the people we were trying to work with was, was not relevant. I was literally being taught that reality, their reality doesn’t matter. And I saw this everywhere and I think it was because of the amazing childhood I had. I don’t know if any year skiers, but if you ever the Pennsylvania skiers, if you ever go down and you’re on some good snow and then suddenly you hit like soft snow or mushy snow, you almost fall off because you, you hit this.

Dr. Withers: 13:20 It was like that. It was like moving really quickly and then hitting med school and residency and, suddenly this invisible obstruction was there because it was a culture, a culture that was affected by things that for me were not, why I went into wanted to go into medicine. So I spent the rest of my career, I think trying to deal with that experience where I had my idealism and then I hit the system. I hit the actual practice. And I think, you know, kids, my own kids,  young folks, they hopefully come up with a sense that, you know, there’s so much possible and what you believe in, what you observe is, is important. And then society in many ways, for many reasons, tells them that’s not what we do. That’s not our reality. You know, learn to ignore those people, learn to judge them from a distance because it’s a lot more convenient to shame and blame people then to actually deal with reality. Reality is tough but it’s so satisfying even if it’s a difficult reality to deal with it. So I guess that’s more less the bullseye of my passion is a call to not pretend like things are good, see how difficult they are and an embrace, the deeper issues rather than just thinking about billing profit, what you’re afraid of getting sued for what we’ve always done, who we’ve always treated and a lot of assumptions about people that we don’t really know because we never walked in their shoes.

Dr. Withers: 15:29 So as a medical educator, I’ve got this passion to be involved in teaching. I was a chief resident at Mercy Hospital here. And at that point I decided to get myself to practice, but, and it needed to be in an arena where there were service, but I just loved the concept of, of doing all that with young people and thinking through it and teaching. So teaching has been, the center of my life. So here I am and I think the person who took this was a medical resident that I took with me to Belize and we’re working in the jungles and this was an attempt to broaden the scale of experiences that our residents would have to be in someone else’s world. Another thing that I was doing around the same time was developing a community rotation where I would try to get, my residents and students with me into the Pittsburgh community outside of the hospital.

Dr. Withers: 16:33 And so, I recognized that Light of Life Shelter didn’t have, it was one of the few that didn’t have a medical clinic. So I talked to them, I said, you guys should have a medical clinic. And they immediately said, yeah, you should be the medical director. And that really like took me back and I realized, I guess they’re right. I guess I should be. So they gave, they gave us some space there in the basement for about 10 years. We had a nice shelter clinic there. It was, she was really a great, one of the things I loved about working there versus what I was doing at that time under