Story and photos by Christopher Klose
Janelle Goetcheus, M.D., Caring for and about Washington, DC's Homeless
"The cold; I just didn't notice it," shrugged Donnie McGee as the nurse cut through the bandages covering his frost-bitten right foot. Two days later, most of it would be amputated. But at last, McGee, homeless for years on the streets of Washington, DC, had found refuge in Christ House, "a 33-bed temporary residential respite care facility for homeless men and women founded by Janelle Goetcheus, M.D., in 1985.
For pioneering this, the nation's first such facility, and, the same year, founding Health Care for the Homeless Project, now known as Unity Health Care, a federally qualified health center operating 25 neighborhood health facilities in DC's neediest areas, and for earlier starting Columbia Road Health Services, a medical clinic serving the capital city's tens-of-thousands of Central American refugees and other extremely poor persons, Goetcheus was named a Local Legend of Medicine in 2004.
She was nominated by Eleanor Holmes Norton, Member of Congress from the District of Columbia, who describes her as a "skilled and talented physician whose hands search through poverty to find those with the greatest needs."
Goetcheus found her life's calling after first visiting Washington in 1976 with her minister husband — and being shocked at what they encountered. "I had wanted to be a doctor in a third-world country. Until I arrived here, I was ignorant of the whole sense of racial injustice, of poverty. I wasn't aware we had the needs here. People shared their stories with me and I left, but with a deep sense of returning," she recalls.
By 1978 she had come back, to stay, transforming a dilapidated apartment building (the Ritz!) into her first clinic. Columbia Road Health Services followed quickly in 1979, and, by 1985, she'd opened Christ House, moved in with her family and ever since has been a powerful force for ensuring that DC's homeless and indigent receive quality health care.
"People come with great medical needs, with many complications, many of them terminal. Just being with the people here is beyond words. It is a privilege to be with the community and with the people," she says.
A familiar, trusted figure along Columbia Road and in neighborhoods across the city, Goetcheus is now but one of a host of medical professionals, community workers, selfless volunteers, and many others from all backgrounds who contribute countless hours to serving those less fortunate through the innovative medical outreach system she started.
Says Dr. Stuart F. Seides, chairman of the District of Columbia Medical Society, who bestowed the 2002 American Medical Association "Pride in Profession" award on Goetcheus, "She is an inner-city missionary, utterly selfless. She has a vision in looking after the homeless and the dispossessed in the city."
One of these people is Nicola Richards, 37, homeless for most of his adult life and now undergoing treatment at Christ House for the rheumatoid arthritis which cripples him. "From the beginning, I didn't know what would happen," he says. "But when I learned to start trusting people, I started getting better.
"It's been a blessing. Physically, my legs have progressed. Mentally, I've been restored to make better choices. Spiritually, my foundation is set."
Meet Your Local Legend!
Local Legends of Medicine
http://www.nlm.nih.gov/locallegends/ is an online Web exhibit highlighting the contributions of outstanding women physicians in rural and urban communities across the country. Nominated by a congressional representative, each extraordinary physician has made a positive, enduring contribution to the health care of her community and to the country.
Local Legends is a companion to "Changing the Face of Medicine: Celebrating America's Women Physicians," http://www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceofmedicine/ an exhibition organized by the National Library of Medicine (NLM), Bethesda, MD, and the American Library Association, Chicago, IL, with support from the National Library of Medicine, the National Institutes of Health Office of Research on Women's Health, and the American Medical Women's Association that was displayed at the NLM from 2003 – 2005. A smaller version of Changing the Face of Medicine is now on travel across the country. For a schedule of this traveling exhibit, go to: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceofmedicine/visit/