Homeless Struggle with Great Loneliness

FAIRFIELD—After completing his residency at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1985 James J. O’Connell, MD, spent his first two months as a physician soaking the feet of homeless men and women in Boston.

His first assignment came as a surprise and a life-changing revelation of the meaning of service and an insight into the loneliness and isolation of the homeless.

“Something as simple as soaking the feet of the homeless reverses the power structure. You are sitting at their feet providing comfort,” said Dr. O’Connell to almost 100 people who gathered for Twenty-Sixth Annual White Mass Breakfast at Brooklawn Country Club.

The breakfast followed the White Mass to honor healthcare workers, which was attended by hundreds of faithful at St. Augustine Cathedral. Bishop Frank J. Caggiano served as the principal celebrant and homilist for the Mass on the 5th Sunday in Lent.

Dr. O’Connell, who is President of Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program and who has earned national recognition for his care of people living on the streets of Boston, said that the nurses who ran the health care clinic when he began work there told him the only way to serve the homeless was to listen, to get to know them and to build trust.

“The homeless often don’t hear their name called with any dignity for months or even years at a time,” said O’Connell, who made a point to call his patients by their first name.

The Harvard Medical School professor and winner of the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award said that working with the homeless has taught him the contradictions of American life and healthcare.

“The death rate for the homeless is 12 to 20 times higher than for any other group. The leading cause of death of people on the streets is cancer,” he said. “Many go untreated though they live in the shadows of the best healthcare in the city.”

A graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Harvard Medical School, Dr. O’Connell said the health problems of the homeless are compounded by their loneliness, particularly when they are seriously ill and need prolonged care. As a result, he created the nation’s first medical respite program for homeless and marginalized populations.

He told the story of one homeless woman who surrounded herself with rotten food so that no one on the street would come near her. He worked with her to get help for her alcoholism and prepare her for surgery.

“Can you take my picture?” she asked on the day before her surgery. Dr. O’Connell was stunned to see her all made up and wearing a new dress for the photo. “Are you afraid of dying?” he asked her in return.

“She said that after living on the streets for 28 years, she wasn’t afraid. But she had two estranged daughters and if they ever saw her picture, she wanted them to think that their mother looked like someone to be proud of,” he said, emphasizing the humanity and dignity of homeless patients.

Dr. O’Connell said that he has worked in Haiti and Africa and witnessed abject poverty, but people were often surrounded by their family and children. In contrast, the homeless of the U.S. suffer from severe and dangerous isolation and loneliness.

During the breakfast, Bishop Frank J Caggiano presented the Fr. Ruffin Compassionate Care Awards to Greenwich Hospital nurse Maureen McLaughlin, RN, and Patricia Stockdale for her compassionate service as a hospital chaplain and an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion.

Photos by Amy Mortensen and Lucinda Ames

A native of New York City, Patricia Stockdale was one of the first female lectors at St. Patrick Cathedral, and since moving to Connecticut in 1992, she has taught CCD, led prayer groups and participated in outreach to the poor and homebound. After becoming certified as Catholic Chaplain in 1996, she has served at St. Joseph Manor in Trumbull and St. James Church in Stratford, where she also offers the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sickly weekly.

Maureen McLaughlin earned her nursing diploma at Saint Elizabeth Hospital School of Nursing in Brighton, MA, and a BS in Nursing from Sacred Heart University. As a full-time home health and hospice nurse, she coordinated end of life care and support for patients and families. She currently serves in the ambulatory care unit of Greenwich Hospital. She is an active member of the St. Matthew Parish Nurse program and cooks meals for the Parish seniors and the Martha Hospitality Committee. Maureen and her husband Barry and son Michael are parishioners of St. Matthew Parish.

Dr. William J. Fessler, DDS served as Master of Ceremony for the breakfast and Fr. Thomas Lynch delivered the invocation.

White Mass

At the White Mass preceding the breakfast, Bishop Caggiano said that healthcare professionals are witnesses to people’s suffering, but also share in the healing mission of the Church.

“Entering into the mystery of suffering and death is disconcerting and frightening. We all have the fear of stepping into the unknown, even if our loving and beautiful God is at the heart of it,’ he said in his homily.
The Bishop thanked doctors, nurses, technicians and all healthcare workers for “serving as agents of God’s mercy and witnesses to his Kingdom that will conquer death.”

He said that doctors and nurses see patients in “their most vulnerable moments and darkest hours,” and help to bring hope and healing.

“You share in the ministry of the Kingdom of God, not simply by healing broken bodies, but you are also healers of broken hearts and spirits,” the Bishop said in praise of healthcare professionals.