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Mercer Revisits Philly

The city of Philadelphia holds special meaning for Dr. William Mercer, Ohio County health officer.

Mercer traveled from the Friendly City to the City of Brotherly Love in 2002 to attend the American Public Health Association’s annual meeting. He noticed a number of homeless people sleeping on the streets of Philadelphia.

During a break from the conference sessions, Mercer took some photographs of homeless people encamped in the downtown area. When the visiting physician snapped a photo of one person on a sidewalk, the man roused and reacted angrily. “The guy hit me,” Mercer recalled.

The experience made the doctor realize that he needed to learn more about issues of homelessness. Through his eduational process, Mercer met Dr. Jim Withers of Pittsburgh who is recognized as the founder of the street medicine movement. He also observed Withers’ pioneering program, Operation Safety Net, in action on the streets and under bridges in Pittsburgh.

Mercer was inspired to start a street medicine initiative, Project HOPE, which operates through the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department. HOPE is an acronym for Homeless Outreach Partnership Effort.

Teams of volunteers from Project HOPE make weekly visits to homeless encampments in Wheeling throughout the year and provide medical care at Youth Services System’s Winter Freeze Shelter in the Hazel Atlas Building.

Project HOPE is one of 90 street medicine programs in the world, Mercer told the Wheeling-Ohio County Board of Health on Tuesday.

While making Project HOPE rounds in September 2015, Mercer and registered nurse Crystal Bauer found Jim Gibbons, a homeless man originally from Philadelphia, sitting outside Northwood Health System’s homeless shelter. Mercer admitted Gibbons to Wheeling Hospital for treatment of a bad infection, fluid in both lungs and lymphoma. After being treated at the hospital, Gibbons was transferred to Peterson Rehabilitation Hospital for a few months. He then was reunited with his family in Philadelphia.

A year later, Gibbons and his brother, John, returned to Wheeling to attend Youth Services System’s dinner honoring Mercer as the 2016 Good Samaritan.

This year, the American Public Health Association’s annual meeting returned to Philadelphia. Mercer — who has kept in contact with Gibbons and his family — told them that he would be attending the conference in Philadelphia from Nov. 2-6. Gibbons, now 72, and his family gave Mercer a tour of the city and went out to dinner together.

“Jim (Gibbons) made sure he paid for my dinner. He was so proud of that. It’s amazing how things work out,” Mercer related.

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