Street Doctor

Harvard Magazine


Joe Meuse spent years drunk on the streets of Boston, sleeping under bridges, over grates, in train stations and tunnels—wherever he passed out. Occasionally he agreed to be driven to a shelter. Meuse was told he logged an astonishing 216 hospital emergency room visits in 18 months, but he doesn’t remember any of them.

“He’s been as far down the drinking path as one can go,” says Meuse’s longtime doctor, James O’Connell, M.D. ’82, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School (HMS), who first met Meuse while riding a nighttime outreach van. “I remember once thinking, ‘I don’t know how Joe is staying alive, because he is drinking so much.’ ”

O’Connell kept reaching out and, with other supporters, eventually helped Meuse turn his life around. He recently marked five years of sobriety—O’Connell was there to celebrate—has housing, and teaches new doctors about addiction and recovery. But the years of alcohol and drug use took a toll on Meuse’s health, and on this October morning the 58-year-old former welder is visiting O’Connell in a small exam room at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). Meuse recently finished treatment for hepatitis C infection, and he wants to kick his final addiction, tobacco. O’Connell checks his heart and lungs, recommends a quit-smoking patch, and admires a photo of Meuse’s dog.

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