L3 Leadership Podcast Transcriptions: Question and Answer with Dr. Jim Withers, The Homeless Doctor

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 we argue about a dollar that someone’s getting or not, yeah, probably you shouldn’t, but if you only focus on that, you’re forgetting the human and the bigger issues and the journey with them, the relationship.

Doug Smith: 00:15 This is the L3 Leadership podcast, episode number 153.

Doug Smith: 00:21 Hey everyone. Welcome to episode number 153 of the L3 Leadership podcast. My name is Doug Smith and I’m the founder of L3 Leadership.

Doug Smith: 00:28 We’re a leadership development Company devoted, helping you become the best leader that you can be. In this episode, you’re going to get here a question and answer session with Dr. Jim Withers, he is the founder of Operation Safety Net is also often referred to as the homeless doctor, which I’ll explain in a minute, but I really know that this Q and A will challenge you and I’d also encourage you to listen to his actual talk that he gave at the breakfast would. You can listen to episode number 152 of the podcast. A few things before I introduce Jim. 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 single month to help you grow and develop. One will always be a talk from our leadership events. One will be at a of interview that I do with a high-level leader, and then once a month you’ll get a leadership lesson by me.

Doug Smith: 01:11 If you’ve been listening for a while, we’d really appreciate it. If you would subscribe and leave a rating and review on iTunes. It really does make a difference, so thank you in advance for that. I want to thank our sponsors, Henne Jewelers they are a jeweler, owned by my friend and mentor, John Henne, my wife Laura 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 marriage and he’s been investing in me as a leader, a husband and a father now for years. If you’re in need of a good jeweler, check out Hennejewelers.com. I want to thank our other sponsor, Alex to land and real estate resources. Alex is a full-time realtor with Keller Williams Realty whose team is committed to providing clients with highly effective premier real estate experiences throughout the Greater Pittsburgh region.

Doug Smith: 01:55 As a member and supporter of L3 Leadership, he would love an opportunity to connect with you. You can find out more about Alex and his work at pittsburghpropertyshowcase.com and now let’s jump right into the Q and A with Dr. Jim Withers. Again, just a little bit about Jim. In 1992, we started dressing up as a homeless person and actually as a doctor going out and, administering and treating the homeless under bridges, which is just incredible that since then that has created a worldwide movement of street medicine and as a result of Dr. Withers work, he’s literally changing the world on a daily basis. He’s given a TEDx talk. He’s been recognized as one of CNN heroes and so much more. But what I really love about Jim is just who he is. He’s down to earth, he’s humble and he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty and actually go in and actually make a huge difference in the world. And I just think that you’ll really enjoy this Q and A session. Again, I encourage you to listen to us talking though the last episode and listen to this, enjoy and I’ll be back at the end with a few announcements.

Attendee: Thank you so much, Jim, for being here. My question, I actually loved your quote, what you said about if you can ever give a hug to somebody with advanced leprosy, that you highly recommend

Attendee: 03:00 it. And I’m curious, we don’t necessarily run into somebody with advanced leprosy every day, but what, how do you translate that into things that we can make people feel valuable and worthwhile every day? Where do you see the most opportunity for that?

Dr. Withers: 03:15 Yeah, it’s, that’s a real deep spiritual question. I think, and I’m guilty of not doing this a lot, but to just slow down your agenda, whatever it is that you’re trying to do and, try to be present to the person in front of you. You know, you have to, as a, medical person, at least you’re in this machine that just goes faster and faster and faster and it dehumanizes not just the people that are going through the system, but it dehumanizes you because you’re just another prison guard. You know, you’re not really a human. There was a paramedic in a program that started from a student of mine who had been homeless as a child. She started Santa Barbara Street medicine program and I go and give annual lectures there. And a young woman came up with a paramedic outfit on and she said, I think I want to work with these people.

Dr. Withers: 04:14 I said, well that’s great cause we don’t get too many first responders. And she said, I want to make it clear. I hate the homeless. I hate them. I try to help them and they don’t treat me like a human being. They, yell at me, they, swing at me and sometimes they spit in my face and I hate them. I said, wow, I like this. And she’s honest. And she said, I want to work with them like you do. Which I thought, wow, what an insight. So I came back,, that summer and we did rounds and she had her volunteer shirt on and she said, this is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. I love it. I love these people. She said, but you know, some of the other paramedics are angry at me because I’m working with those people. So it’s the humanity. It’s the, it’s the moment of recognizing the human in each other. That I think it’s an art form, but you have to be vulnerable and open enough to do that and recognize that if you don’t do that, then everything you build is on sand after that. But it’s, you know, just be aware of that key part in any interaction you have.

Attendee: 05:24 So I don’t want to say, keep your soul intact, but when you reality, and you walk people through things that a lot of people have never seen. How do you actually deal with that when you go home? How do you just deal with all the pain and tragedy you see? It’s a reality but a lot of people see that and want to join and say I can’t handle that. Is that just in you or is it something you have to learn? Do you take three-day retreats just to keep yourself

Attendee: 05:46 refreshed?

Dr. Withers: Well, I mean, the ultimate of that was the symposium. It’s a community of people that we know what we’re talking about and people get super excited. It, I think that, you need time. I saw it, I heard a sermon wants to the market and the mountain where Jesus was, you know, was spent time in the market, but then went back to the mountain. And I think you need, to protect your soul, your time. Reflect on what you’ve been through. You don’t, you can’t own it. You just can’t own, you know, Mother Teresa said, I’m just a pencil, a little pencil and God’s hand. I think that the people we work with are the pencil sharpener. It makes us sharper. But, I think it’s a lot about, seeing, it as a blessing to be able to be in people’s lives.

Dr. Withers: 06:42 One of the groups at the hospital that was the most stable, the nurses was the oncology nurses. And I was wondering why is that? And I think it’s because they felt like there were needed. They were there for people that were really needed. So, um, if you really love what you do it and you feel that it has purpose, I think it gives you energy, but you do need to have time away from it and you need to have chance to talk with each other. Other people are going through it because I felt very alone when I started. And that was, that was difficult.

Doug Smith: 07:14 Other questions?

Attendee: 07:22 Hi Jim. My question is, what do you, what advice do you give to people who maybe feel overwhelmed or paralyzed by so much need that they sometimes don’t do anything. What would your advice be to those that just to get out there and actually do something, whatever that looks like?

Dr. Withers: 07:38 Yeah, I mean, it’s the starfish story. I mean, you know, you’ve all heard it. Probably the storm washed up a million starfish and the old man or the young boy, whatever is washing them off, throwing them back one by one, and someone comes along and says, you’re not making any difference, there’s a million starfish. And the old man says, well, I’m making a difference to that one, you know, and throws it back in water. So I think it’s, again, not owning the pain of, of reality, but I think it’s so satisfying to actually be dealing with reality instead of pretending like it doesn’t exist. It’s like you’re eating real food instead of junk food. So I think giving it up to, you know, a higher power is really, really important. And, and seeing yourself for as a being part of something bigger.

Dr. Withers: 08:35 And at least doing your part to me helps a great deal. I tend to, I used to ride horses as a kid, so I understand that being saddle sore. And I think you have to shift around a lot. So sometimes it’s about the person right in front of me. Sometimes it’s like, Oh, developing a new, a new, a lot of times it’s having students like Kate who came from Dartmouth just for this, you know, to share this with. And the teaching really energizes me a lot. But you just, you can just kind of move around different elements and you become an adult learner. Whenever you go outside the bounds of what a system has laid out, you have to become an adult learner. In other words, learn because you need it, not because you’re told to learn it and get comfortable with that.

Attendee: 09:33 I just have a question about how from like your time allocation perspective, when you started, how you are balancing your traditional job with kind of like this passion that was emerging and then how that played out over like the decades that followed. Like, did you continue to practice medicine in a hospital setting or was there a point where you just broke away and did this full time?

Dr. Withers: 09:56 Yeah. I’m a funny combination of, a risk taker and a person who’s scared to take risks. So

Dr. Withers: 10:08 yeah,

Dr. Withers: 10:09 I, someone told me, you know, Start Your own nonprofit, you know, don’t be beholden to anyone else. You know, and I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that. But for me, I couldn’t, imagine that insecure level of insecurity. I do a lot of kind of friendly counseling of a lot of people who said, I want to be a street clinician. Where do you go for that? There is no place you go for that yet. And hopefully we won’t have people on the street and that won’t be needed. But, I chose to sort of hedge my bets by finding an organization. I’m not Catholic, but I, I could see that, the Catholic health system that I was in had deep, deep roots, that soil that I could grow in because whatever I wanted to get involved and they’d be a little more tolerant because it was doing God’s work. So that was a really smart choice and then not pushing it too far too fast. It was really important, I stabilized my career a lot by connecting it with something like teaching so that you can kind of get away with things that you know are new because it’s teaching. So that helped.

Dr. Withers: 11:27 Honestly becoming a doctor helps because you’re kind of guaranteed a minimum salary that’s not going to be too bad. Which was an earlier choice. And then, you know, working with partnerships, my, I’m still doing some of what I originally was doing, but largely it has kind of just shifted over here where as opposed to 5% with street work now it’s like 90% has to do with street work and travel and stuff like that. And I’m still teaching and I’m still seeing patients and I’m still working for the same people that I started with. They’ve kind of pulled her hair out over the years about me, but they’ve learned that I am going to do my job and that I’m doing it from a place that they also believe in. And communicating that to my boss has been really, important. I had to learn to do that.

Dr. Withers: 12:23 So I don’t know if that helps. But you know, there’s, for street medicine at least there’s no, standard pathway for it. Some people, one of my former students actually treats movie stars and street people and so she gets a lot of money here and she applies it there. And other people put themselves in positions that are, you know, affiliated with what they believe. There’s like, you’re going across the grain because the world wants you to do what it wants you to do to make money and you want to do what you believe in. And so you have to kind of keep connecting those two.

Attendee: 13:07 Thank you again for sharing your story this morning. This is great. My question is,

Attendee: 13:14 What would you have done differently or what have you learned that you wish you would’ve known at the beginning?

Dr. Withers: 13:22 That’s a good question. I don’t know. It’s so hard because there were so many moments along the way when,

Dr. Withers: 13:35 I wanted it to go this way and I was so angry, you know? And then I got almost forced to go this way, and then I looked back and said, oh my gosh, I’m so glad I went this way instead of that way, because that was a dead end. So I don’t trust my judgement too well. I trust my instincts. But I don’t regret anything really.

Dr. Withers: 14:03 I mean, I, there are skills that I lack, but I’ve been able to usually find, I don’t know if you guys are too young to know who Mr. Magoo was, but you know, he, he walked along blind and people and things rescued him all the time. So I feel like it’s the Mr. Magoo effect I’ve, I’ve had, you can look at it as a faith thing as well, but

Dr. Withers: 14:26 Sometimes I wish maybe I had had the capacity to start my own nonprofit from the beginning because that would have given a lot more degrees of freedom and I’ve had to fight for the street folks and I’ve had to fight for the education.

Dr. Withers: 14:41 As my,

Dr. Withers: 14:44 you know, support system has shifted over the years. But I also feel like having to fight for it made me understand it better.

Attendee: Anything else about that or give an example a time that you want to go a certain way,

Attendee: 15:04 right?

Dr. Withers: 15:07 Yeah. Well, I want to get too, too personal about this, but, so I committed myself to the Department of Medicine at Mercy, like, like a sacred thing. And I was fighting for

Dr. Withers: 15:26 what I saw as their legacy of service and teaching and being in the inner city. And I fully committed myself to that and that’s why I, that’s why I started going under bridges is for them for that teaching. I didn’t go on the street to save homeless people. I went on the street to save doctors. And that never really took very well with the department of Medicine because that’s not on the boards, you know, and they thought he’s got something he likes about street people. I hope he’s not mentally ill, you know. And, and so I found myself getting slowly fired. They, I don’t know if your office space, I have a read Swingline Stapler. But they said, well we’re not going to budget for you and an as much and you can take money from your grants.

Dr. Withers: 16:19 And so I found myself having to work for the street folks and still wanting my first love teaching and that, frustrated me a lot. And then when the hospital was sold, I suddenly couldn’t get out of the parking garage. And I said, why not? Because you don’t work here anymore. I said, really? And so I had to fight my way back to the, a part-time position at the hospital. And I was angry and then, but I was still with the sisters and they created this primary care organization on the south side. That was everything I could have ever dreamed of. I mean they were, they had a psychiatrist right next to me to see the patient and all these services and it was, it was better than I could’ve ever imagined at the hospital. I’m still going to the hospital cause I still love them and I believe in what they do. And I love teaching there. But now I have my students who are actually way cooler there at the right stage where we could talk about life and philosophy. They teach me so much. They come from all over the world. And so I’m getting my, my teaching Jones like better than I could have gotten there. But I resisted it. I was really like.

Attendee: 17:41 I’ll wrap up with the last question so, it’s two-fold. So there’s a lot of toxic charity in the world, we see it at Light of Life sometimes, we see people come down because they want o pat themselves on the back and say hey I’m not going to continue to go back. Could you just talk to everyone here to make a real impact in an organization, whether they’re passionate about homelessness, inner-city kids or whatever their cause and choice is. What would your encouragement be to make the biggest impact on an organization? And can you just wrap up with telling us how we can connect with what you’re doing if people are interested, connecting with Operational Safety Net and the ways we can partner with you.

Dr. Withers: 18:14 Okay. Was that three questions? I kind of missed the one in the middle a little bit. Toxic charity is a really important thing to think about. We have been accused of enabling and all kinds of stuff. Which is an interesting thing from people from a great distance to assume. And I, I’m always wondering why do people want to put you in a box like that? It’s like someone who, a doctor who doesn’t go into a patient room and see somebody saying, we’d just making them sicker by going in there. You know, getting close to it is the only way to see what’s going on. Yes, you can enable people. You can do things in a way that make them weaker. There was that, that book, Toxic Charity and there’s some others that are really good at this.

Dr. Withers: 19:19 If you really want to get deep repower for areas, work, Pedagogy the Oppressed, but the thing is that, when you’ve been with someone in a snowstorm, they can lie to you. They can get away. They can sneak an extra pair of socks. They can do these little things. But deeper, there’s something much stronger that’s being built. And you get the right to talk to people and say, you’re kind of full of crap today. You know, that. And they, you know, I was like, oh, okay. You’re right. I mean, you get the right to say that because you’ve been there with them. And you could only get that by, going to where they are and being with them. And so we try to keep a handle on stuff, but we also, we don’t get crazy about the small stuff either because it’s just small stuff.

Dr. Withers: 20:17 And I think to put it in Christian terms, I think Satan actually enjoys when we argue about a dollar that someone’s getting or not. Yeah, probably you shouldn’t. But if you only focus on that you’re forgetting the human and the bigger issues and the journey with them, the relationship. And people like to argue about that kind of stuff. And I think it keeps, gets them a little further away from the human beings. But you need to, you need to be accountable to it because you can get off on a path and realize, you know, we’re really not helping someone with this intervention as much as we thought we were. And maybe withdraw it or, or do it differently. I forgot the middle part. And the last part was how to connect.

Doug Smith: Yeah. How can we connect with Operation Safety Net if people want to get involved?

Dr. Withers: 21:10 Well I, you know, as far as operations team, there’s a lot of organizations like the life of many others here that have probably seen more people than we do and have structures that are more user-friendly to larger numbers of volunteers and stuff. We do need people in winter because we run that, that shelter and Smithfield Street, at the church and we need groups to give, to provide meals. And if we don’t get them, we order pizza. But it’s much better to have groups of people that can come and, and serve the food. And then you get to see these folks that they’re really come out of the furtherest corners of our community. And, I mean, I used to have that feeling when I served food at light of life, but you get it in spades down there because you see these vulnerable, vulnerable people and you realize, I’m part of a group that’s there for these guys and women and so it really enhances your soul a lot.

Dr. Withers: 22:10 So helping it. The winter shelter helps. We can always use a support because we have so many loose ends where, you know, we could use some cash for that, this or that. When someone can’t, for whatever reason, get their meds, you know, we have a couple of places that we can just say, it’s on us. Just go there, get your meds now. And we give meds. And so there are things like that. So there are financial needs. I think one of the things that are on my heart right now has been for a while is to be part of a community that doesn’t allow itself to began to hate people who are suffering. To see yourself as a victim of someone who’s sleeping in a gutter. There’s so much anger directed at street people. They’re murdered, their legs are broken. They’re burned all over this country in here and no one really cares that much. They’re not like real people. And to me it’s really a much bigger thing. But how can you hate people who are suffering and see yourselves as victims of them? Yeah, they’re making stupid choices but they’re not the same people usually, those people have now gotten housing. So just try to really tone down any conversation you hear, that’s directed at hatefully or negatively about people that are, sleeping under a bridge because you may not know what they’ve been through. You know that to me and pray for them, you know, cause does hate stuff just isn’t getting us anywhere.

Doug Smith: 24:11 Thank you so much for listening to our Q and A session with Dr. Jim Withers. You can find ways to connect with him

Doug Smith: 24:17 and what he is doing at L3leadership.org/153. You can also listen to his talk that he gave in episode 152 if you want to go back and listen to that. And I’ve also interviewed them in the past for the podcast in episode number 56. So I highly encourage you, if you, if you connected with Jim, go check out those episodes as well. A few things before we close. I want to let you know that we recently introduced the l three leadership membership for just $25 a month. You can now become a member of L3 Leadership. You’ll get into all of our breakfast events for free. You have the ability to join a mastermind group and you’ll have access to our member-only cite filled with extra content, resources and courses to help you go to the next level. For more information on leadership membership, go to L3leadership.org/.

Doug Smith: 24:59 membership. I also want to thank our sponsor, Babb Inc. They are an independent insurance broker, third-party administrator and consulting firm in Pennsylvania. And they do business all over the country and they’re led by my friend Russell Livingston. Russell has a huge passion for developing next-generation leaders, which is why he hosts our monthly leadership breakfast and we just so appreciate them and they’re doing some really unique things in the, in the insurance world. So if your organization has any insurance needs, please check out Babb at babbin.com Babbins.com. And lastly, if you want to stay in touch with l three leadership and everything we’re doing in our upcoming events, you can sign up for our email list L3leadership.org and you also get a free copy of my ebook Making the Most of Mentoring, my step by step process for getting meetings with leaders. Again, if you enjoy this podcast, we’d really appreciate if you would subscribe and leave a rating and review on iTunes or whatever app you use to listen to podcasts.

Doug Smith: 25:52 It really helps us grow our audience, so thank you in advance for that and as always, I like to end with a quote and Mike Tomlin recently said this, the coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, he simply said, “Find a meaningful ways to use the platforms God’s given you.” And I’m so grateful that the doctor weathers does that. He has meaningful ways to use the platform God’s given him and I would encourage you to take that same challenge you use the platform God’s given you to make a difference. Thanks for listening and being a part of l three leadership. Laura and I appreciate you so much and we’ll talk to you next episode.