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"A Nurse to the Homeless"

June 8, 2007 -- Today the Jamaica Plain Gazette (Boston, Mass) published a good profile of nurse Michael O'Connor, an AIDS care specialist who works for the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP). The piece was written by BHCHP "media coordinator" Vicki Ritterband, rather than an independent reporter. Even so, it is a straightforward, informative account of what O'Connor actually does, and the challenges of caring for those who face AIDS and homelessness, often together with mental illness, addiction, and/or other chronic problems. Readers learn about the diverse roles O'Connor plays, including teaching and advocating. And he gets significant opportunities to convey his expertise through quotes. We thank Ms. Ritterband and the Jamaica Plain Gazette.

"A Nurse to the Homeless" reports that O'Connor started his career at BHCHP as a counselor two decades ago. But he "soon realized that it was the shelter's nurses who were having the greatest impact on the residents." The nurses were doing "real therapeutic work," treating the immediate problem but also talking to patients about their lives. Now O'Connor describes his work as involving listening, and "to find the positive, to offer hope and act as an agent of change."

The piece also includes helpful detail about O'Connor's work at various sites, including BHCHP clinics in Boston area hospitals and a shelter. He "runs support groups, sees patients, hooks people up with physicians and educates newly diagnosed patients about medication adherence and the basics of their disease." The piece quotes O'Connor:

There's a lot of education to be done on HIV for newly diagnosed patients. For example, if a person is told to take all of this medicine and not to miss a dose, it's important that they are taught why. That requires educating patients about viruses, the immune system, resistance and white and red blood cells. This kind of education doesn't happen during the doctor's visit. This is the territory of nursing.

This is a good statement of what nurses do, and it positions O'Connor as an expert. Other parts of the piece have a similar effect. O'Connor says that HIV remains (in the piece's words) a "death sentence for too many homeless patients" because the disease tends not to be diagnosed or treated as quickly, which can allow opportunistic infections to take hold. He also stresses the dedication that effective treatment requires, which can be difficult for patients who are "distracted by addiction, mental illness and different priorities," like looking for food or shelter. And if patients do not take the medication regularly, O'Connor notes, "that's almost worse than not taking it because of the resistance that develops."

The piece also includes background information about BHCHP and O'Connor himself. It explains that the nonprofit delivers care to thousands of homeless people each year through clinics in shelters, hospitals, detoxification centers, on the streets, "and in countless other places where homeless people gather." The piece lets us know that O'Connor has a wife and young son (it says nothing directly about his experience as a man in nursing). And the article spends some time on his "passion" for music, noting that he plays saxophone and bass and has produced a benefit CD of children's music with local and South African musicians. O'Connor explains why he believes music and nursing are "complementary pursuits":

There's a spiritual aspect to both. When you visit a place like South Africa, the doctors and nurses are praying all the time and singing too. Here, you can find spirituality in healthcare, but it's more hidden. I believe that nursing is very holistic, and in the future, it will include spirituality more and more.

We are often uncomfortable with media associations of nursing and "praying" because they tend to promote the unskilled angel image. Occasionally, they describe activity that may present a risk that patients will feel undue influence from a nurse's specific religious views. However, O'Connor appears to be embracing a non-sectarian holism, a belief that nurses should help patients achieve well-being through a broad-based approach that includes all aspects of their lives, including spirituality. This is a good message about nursing, provided it is clear that nursing is not just a collection of devout sentiments and scut work. But here we see nothing to suggest the angel. The rest of the piece makes pretty clear that O'Connor is a serious professional, operating autonomously in a number of roles, including those of clinician, educator, and "agent of change." In short, the piece presents nurses as doing "real therapeutic work" with a tangible impact on some of the neediest U.S. residents.

We thank Ms. Ritterband and the Jamaica Plain Gazette for this helpful article.

See the article "A Nurse to the Homeless" by Vicki Ritterband from the June 8, 2007 edition of the Jamaica Plain Gazette.


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