A Fruitful Life
Compassion is the Bottom Line for Dr. Vincent Waite of the Greater Lawrence Family Health Center
When asked what made him want to become a doctor, Vincent Waite, a physician at the Greater Lawrence Family Health Center, says, “My main goal for medicine, and for life, was to work with the resource-poor in Africa.”
Waite, 65, grew up in a Roman Catholic family on New York City’s Staten Island. One of the first in his family to go to college, Waite attended the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y. He has dedicated his career to caring for the disadvantaged, initially by practicing medicine in northern Ghana, where he worked from 1983 to 1998. Once back in the U.S., Waite practiced in rural Georgia, where he worked as a primary care provider and at an HIV clinic. Since 2008, he has provided medical care for the Merrimack Valley’s homeless as a staff member at GLFHC.
According to Waite, it’s essential to treat the homeless in place, so he and his colleagues work wherever the homeless are, including at shelters like the Lowell Transitional Living Center and in soup kitchens, including Bread & Roses in Lawrence. “Their priorities are different than yours and mine,” Waite says. “Theirs is to find housing, shelter and food during the day. Health is way down on the list. Getting people to show up at clinics who may have a diagnosis of mental illness or a problem with drug abuse is nearly impossible.”
In spite of the tough conditions, the rewards Waite receives from his work are many. “I find kinship with these people,” he says. “I find individuals who have the same need for meaning in their lives as I do. I found this to be true in Africa and in other places I’ve worked, as well. I don’t have pity for them. Pity and moral outrage are nothing but compassion gone backwards.”
Caring for disadvantaged populations can be as difficult as it is rewarding, and often involves a combination of both. Waite tells stories of homeless patients found frozen to death under snowbanks, and of a 12-year-old girl he treated in Ghana whose leg had to be amputated as the result of an untreated infection. “Cutting a limb off is an extreme cultural problem in northern Ghana,” Waite says. “It makes one almost less than a person. In this case, we had taken someone who was dying and made her into a pariah. We were eventually able to get her a prosthetic leg, and so were at least able to get her on the road to being whole person again.”
One of Waite’s most difficult and most rewarding experiences involved Chuck, a homeless patient he met at Bread & Roses soup kitchen. “Chuck lived under a bridge in Lawrence,” Waite says. “He was a successful engineer whose life came to a screeching halt when his daughter died in a car crash. He became the protector of the other people living under the bridge, helping them get services he would never avail of himself.”
Waite and Chuck became friends, but eventually Chuck was diagnosed with terminal cancer. “He requested that his ashes be spread under the bridge where he lived,” Waite says. “We were under the cathedral-like arches of this bridge in Lawrence, surrounded by homeless and Chuck’s family. It became a holy place as his sisters threw his ashes into the Merrimack.”
Waite’s work also provides benefits to the medical residents he works with at GLFHC. Twice a year he brings residents to the hospital where he worked in Ghana. Residents also accompany him to the homeless shelters and soup kitchens where he practices. “It helps them understand that there are no stereotypes,” Waite says. “I’ve seen people in shelters reading Nietzsche. I’ve seen lawyers who ended up homeless because of divorce or mental health issues. I want my residents exposed to this so they can become caregivers who recognize their patients’ humanity, to see past the homeless guy who hasn’t been able to get a shower to the person underneath.”
At 65, Waite has no immediate plans to retire. He’s working on a project with Dr. Elaine Lee, also of GLFHC, to develop a mobile clinic that will enable them to treat homeless patients in places they’ve been unable to go. And because working at GLFHC has required him to learn Spanish, Waite says he might look for an opportunity in the future to provide care for the resource-poor in Central and South America.
Waite was a finalist for The Schwartz Center for Compassionate Healthcare’s 2016 National Compassionate Caregiver of the Year Award and was named the 2016 Family Physician of the Year by the Massachusetts Academy of Family Physicians. While he says the recognition is appreciated, it’s not the reason he continues to do what he does.
“A fruitful life is one that asks us to create meaning based on a cause outside of ourselves,” Waite says. “Meaning is a result of right action and right conduct, and is ultimately informed by love. Greater Lawrence Family Health Center has offered me a life that’s worth living.”
Greater Lawrence Family Health Center
Lawrence and Methuen, Mass.