Every medical doctor has a unique education and training history, places and people: university, medical school, residency program, special mentors and attendings, other residents; 40 percent of all contemporary American physicians have had some medical education at Cook County Hospital (CCH), possibly as brief as a weekend board review or as long as a 7-year internship, residency and fellowship.
Most of the doctors trained at CCH have felt the experience there to be book-worthy and many have published memoirs. Having worked through a three-month rotation at County on the NUMS medical ward as a senior student, I have had enough interest to collect about a foot of shelf devoted to books about County. A new book reviewed in the Chicago Tribune this May, "A History of Surgery at Cook County Hospital," by multiple authors including James S.T. Yao MD/PhD, caught my attention as a must read.
The bookshelf being full, I bought the e-book. "History of Surgery" tells the stories of the CCH surgical interns and residents during the 1960s when County was a plum surgical residency, demanding but offering an unmatched in rich clinical experience and excellent teaching.
As I read the book, I hadn't anticipated that among the major contributors would be the respected and talented surgeon James Kennedy MD, who practiced for 20 years in Kankakee. Jim Kennedy was a role model for me and sponsored my induction into the American College of Surgeons. More than a skillful surgeon, Jim was always a powerful voice in the medical staff, an advocate supporting the best quality of care, access to care, and affordability of care for patients at both Kankakee hospitals. Sadly, Jim's surgical career was ended prematurely by the onset of Parkinson's in 1988, and he succumbed to the disease in 2013. After he left the operating room, Jim continued to contribute to medicine in a teaching capacity.
The old CCH often is stereotyped as being mired with Chicago politics and having had substandard conditions with crowded wards and ORs with open windows for light and ventilation. However, County also was a national center of innovation in trauma care, burn treatment, pediatric surgery, and many other areas. "History of Surgery" presents a snapshot of each CCH surgical department during the '60s in the words of doctors-in-training at the time. Many of this book's contributors were the leaders and innovators in surgery at Chicago's major hospitals for the next 40 years.
Co-author James Yao MD/PhD, a lifelong close friend of Dr. Kennedy's after working together at County, interviewed Jim during his last years, resulting in numerous Kennedy contributions to "History of Surgery."
Kennedy remembered that Surgeon-in-Chief Dr. Karl Meyer, the County Hospital tsar for 53 years (1914-1967), would "tour the country by train, stopping in various cities to watch noted surgeons perform newly described operations or to listen to lectures ..." Karl Meyer was a key figure in Chicago Democratic politics and a close friend of Mayor Richard J. Daley. Always critical of politics in medicine, Kennedy also recalled that there were kickbacks and payoffs for hospital managers referring for burial and funeral services, and that politically connected lawyers had special access to accident victims. Dr. Kennedy also quotes, "Only insecure surgeons yell at scrub nurses."
One more fact and a local connection — Karl Meyer owned a farm near Gilman which after his death was operated for 31 years as the Heartland Spa. The spa closed in Gilman last year and moved to Lake Geneva, Wis. Like the Gilman Spa, the functioning Cook County Hospital is gone now, replaced by the up-to-date Stroger Hospital, but the empty 100-year-old building remains fronting on Harrison Street. The Gray Lady is now the Gray Hulk awaiting a decision by politicians whether to repurpose or raze.
Every soul who ever walked in the door has at least one story, and "History of Surgery" is a compilation of the stories of a group of doctors at a specific important time and is worth a read for anyone with interest in Chicago medicine.