WASHINGTON — After four decades of caring for the homeless in the District, a woman dubbed the "Mother Theresa of D.C." is calling it a career.
WUSA9’s Delia Gonçalves sat down with Dr. Janelle Goetcheus inside Unity Healthcare’s clinic at 2nd and D Streets in Northwest. The basement office is located in the same building as the CCNV (Community for Creative Non-Violence) homeless shelter.
As the interview was set to start, a woman, clearly in distress, started sobbing loudly and uncontrollably in the next exam room. It was hard to hear but important to listen to the anguish of the homeless, the despair of mental illness, the wail of a woman who needed help.
“Such pain, such suffering,” said Dr. Goetcheus. It was not planned but had purpose and illustrated the need for a servant like Dr. Janelle Goetcheus: a woman of profound faith, a compassionate doctor and a minister’s wife who dedicated 40 years of her life to serving the homeless in D.C.
“By the time they become homeless then they are so wounded,” she explained, “and you’re hearing some of that pain come out now and it’s not unusual unfortunately. Some people don’t let it out in terms of the deep, deep pain people pain carry and the suffering they carry. So, when someone comes to us, they may have high blood pressure, diabetes or something like that we always know there’s much more.”
It is noble yet difficult work. Dr. Goetcheus said her team is on this journey with her and amidst the pain she said there is joy, “to be able to know people and know our patients who come and share their lives with us,” she said. Dr. Goetcheus has been getting to know our homeless neighbors since she moved to DC with a mission to help the medically under-served.
Goetcheus opened Columbia Road Health Services in 1979, Christ Church homeless shelter in 1985 and that same year the doctor co-founded Healthcare for the Homeless Project -- which later became Unity Healthcare serving more than 100,000 patients in 20 different locations.
“Sometimes you give just a little mustard seed of care and it grows beyond what you thought,” Goetcheus said.
Now after 34 years as Unity’s Chief Medical Officer and Executive Vice President, Dr. Goetcheus is retiring but will stay on as Unity’s CMO Emeritus helping to guide the future of healthcare in D.C.
“Housing is healthcare and so like here, people don’t have a home, and it’s not just a home - a good home where there is nurturing available and good schools and all the things necessary for being able to grow as a person,” said Goetcheus, “so are we addressing all those issues of poverty? No. Are we addressing all those issues of racism? Hmm (as she shook her head); you know, that’s health."
So, while there is still much work do to, this servant - who has earned countless awards over her four-decade career - can smile knowing she answered the call to help.
Dr. Goetcheus will remain in her current position until a new CMO is in place.