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Reviews of Rough Sleepers by Tracy Kidder

Rough Sleepers

Dr. Jim O'Connell's urgent mission to bring healing to homeless people

by Tracy Kidder

Rough Sleepers by Tracy Kidder X
Rough Sleepers by Tracy Kidder
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2023, 320 pages

    Paperback:
    Jan 2024, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book

Book Summary

The powerful story of an inspiring doctor who made a difference, by helping to create a program to care for Boston's homeless community—by the Pulitzer Prize–winning, New York Times bestselling author of Mountains Beyond Mountains

Tracy Kidder has been described by The Baltimore Sun as a "master of the nonfiction narrative." In Rough Sleepers, Kidder shows how one person can make a difference, as he tells the story of Dr. Jim O'Connell, a gifted man who invented ways to create a community of care for a city's unhoused population, including those who sleep on the streets—the "rough sleepers."

When 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 he defer a prestigious fellowship and spend a year helping to create an organization to bring health care to homeless citizens? Jim took the job because he felt he couldn't refuse. But that year turned into his life's calling. Tracy Kidder spent five years following Dr. O'Connell and his colleagues as they served their thousands of homeless patients. In this illuminating book we travel with O'Connell as he navigates the city, offering medical care, socks, soup, empathy, humor, and friendship to some of the city's most endangered citizens. He emphasizes a style of medicine in which patients come first, joined with their providers in what he calls "a system of friends."

Much as he did with Paul Farmer in Mountains Beyond Mountains, Kidder explores how a small but dedicated group of people have changed countless lives by facing one of American society's difficult problems instead of looking away.

I
The Van

Around ten on a warm September night, the outreach van stopped in the kind of South Boston neighborhood said to be "in transition." On one side of the street was a new apartment building, its windows glowing, its sidewalk lit by artful imitations of old-fashioned streetlamps. On the other side, in murky light, stood an abandoned loading dock. A heap of blankets lay on the concrete platform. Someone passing by wouldn't have known they were anything but discarded blankets. But when the driver of the van walked up the steps and spoke to them, saying he was doing a wellness check, a muffled voice came back from underneath: "F*** you. Get the f*** outa here."

The driver turned away and shrugged to Dr. Jim O'Connell, who was standing at the bottom of the steps. "Let me try," the doctor said, and he climbed up to the platform and knelt by the gray mound. "Hey, Johnny. It's Jim O'Connell. I haven't seen you in a long time. I just want to make sure you're all right."

An earthquake in ...

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Reviews

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Kidder's portrait of O'Connell is vivid, painting his subject as a caring individual who is both frustrated and fascinated by his profession. He chronicles the doctor's journey from his first enthusiastic but naïve efforts to his becoming savvy about getting care to his patients, even if he has to use unconventional methods to do so (he decides, for example, to leave some patients' medications with a bartender who agreed to make them take their pills before giving them a drink). It's a finely-tuned portrayal that avoids the temptation of casting the physician as overly saintly or heroic; his flaws are evident, as are his strengths, and as a result, readers feel they know O'Connell well by the book's end...continued

Full Review (791 words)

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(Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Media Reviews

New York Times
[W]riting about the homeless ethically demands treating them with as much scrutiny as any subject of nonfiction; respecting them means asking the hard questions. Kidder instead relies on his prodigious skills as a reporter to round out his portrait, digging into public records and social science research, and drawing on his months of observation. But even as he movingly captures Tony's ultimate collapse, the reader never fully understands its etiology.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A searching, troubling look at the terrible actualities of homelessness.

Publishers Weekly
Keenly observed and fluidly written, this is a compassionate report from the front lines of one of America's most intractable social problems.

Author Blurb Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone
I couldn't put Rough Sleepers down. I am left in awe of the human spirit and inspired to do better.

Author Blurb Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, author of Random Family
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.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Naloxone (Narcan)

Narcan nasal sprayIn Tracy Kidder's Rough Sleepers, the drug naloxone, commonly known by the brand name Narcan, saves the lives of multiple people in the throes of an overdose from opioids like fentanyl and oxycodone.

A relative of morphine, naloxone was first patented in 1961 by American scientists looking for a medication to treat constipation resulting from opioid use. They discovered that the drug could be used to reverse opioid overdoses, and the FDA approved it for such treatment in 1971. As heroin abuse and subsequent overdose deaths increased alarmingly in the 1990s, naloxone became a vital part of emergency medical kits. A nasal spray delivery system was devised in 2012 and given FDA approval in 2015.

Opioids such as morphine, oxycodone and ...

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Read-Alikes

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