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Jan 10, 2023
About Rough Sleepers
The powerful story of an inspiring doctor who helped to create a medical system for the homeless people of Boston - by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Mountains Beyond Mountains.
“I couldn’t put Rough Sleepers down. I am left in awe of the human spirit and inspired to do better.”—Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone
Nearly forty years ago, after 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 Jim defer a prestigious fellowship and spend a year as a doctor to homeless citizens? Jim took the job because he felt he couldn’t refuse. But that year turned into his life’s calling—to serve the city’s unhoused population, especially the “rough sleepers,” people who sleep on the streets, in the rough.
Today, Dr. Jim and his colleagues lead an organization that includes clinics affiliated with Massachusetts General Hospital and the Boston Medical Center, and a host of teams that serve special groups. One of these is a street team who reach rough sleepers by van. Tracy Kidder spent time over five years riding with Dr. O’Connell as he navigated the city at night, offering medical care, socks, soup, empathy and friendship to some of the city’s endangered citizens.
A symptom of the systemic failures that feed American poverty—racism, childhood trauma, violence—homelessness afflicts a broad and diverse population. To treat their many illnesses, Dr. O’Connell emphasizes a style of medicine in which patients come first, joined with their providers in what he calls “a system of friends.” In Rough Sleepers we meet some of the people Dr. O’Connell has cared for over the years, including Tony, a protector of others on the streets, and Joanne who spent many years on the streets and now lectures each new Harvard Medical School class, offering them a rough sleeper’s view of what makes a good doctor.
Tracy Kidder, a master of reporting and nonfiction storytelling, takes us deep into Jim O’Connell’s world, much as he did with Paul Farmer in Mountains Beyond Mountains. This magnificent, deeply researched, and inspiring book explores how one doctor has changed countless lives by facing one of American society’s most shameful problems, instead of looking away.
Advance praise for Rough Sleepers:
“What does it mean, in our time of inequality, to care for the vulnerable in ways that strengthen the better angels of our common humanity? Tracy Kidder’s book, and the work of Dr. Jim O’Connell, connect us to unforgettable individuals, who allow us to get closer to the suffering that is only one part of what we need to see."
—Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, author of Random Family
“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. The Sisyphean work of Dr. Jim O’Connell and his team, the embattled humanity of their patients living on the cold streets of Boston—it’s a story full of hard questions, a story with many heroes.”
“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. I agonized with the dedicated physician and the army of others who give their lives to a cause most of us pretend is invisible; I rejoiced in the fleeting victories. 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 estimable Tracy Kidder has found another unsung saint—this time not in the back country of Haiti or in genocide-ravaged Burundi, but, literally, on the streets of a major American city. And once again, as with his earlier books, this finely-crafted story sheds light on a larger landscape of injustice.”
—Adam Hochschild, author of American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis
“Tracy Kidder has done it yet again. Rough Sleepers will do for homelessness what Mountains Beyond Mountains did for public health. Kidder introduces us to this wondrous cast of characters who have been completely shunted aside. He doesn't let us look away. And we take this journey alongside this astonishingly bighearted, patient, thoughtful man in Jim O'Connell, a doctor to the homeless. I'm in awe of this book. I'm in awe of Jim O'Connell. What a compellingly beautiful, inspiring read.”
—Alex Kotlowitz, bestselling author of There Are No Children Here