If you’re interested in Chicago history, public health, or unsung heroes, don’t miss County: Life, Death, and Politics at Chicago’s Public Hospital by David Ansell, M.D. This is a well-written, fascinating and harrowing look at the city’s famed public hospital.
You could easily live a lifetime in Chicago and never see the impressive Beaux-Arts facade, let alone the overcrowded hallways of the old Cook County Hospital. If that’s true, consider yourself lucky. Much depends on economic level and zip code.
If my father hadn’t been a physician, hadn’t trained at Cook County Hospital, I would never have seen it myself. He took me there just once, but what I saw stayed with me, and I can picture scenes from that day.
I can also still hear my father’s voice saying “County,” as he did so often in conversation. I heard “County” from the time I was four until my father passed away 50 years later. “County” was a frame of reference, a source of lifelong friendships and an inspiration for his medical career. He spent only a couple years as a resident at County, but the experience clung to him all his life.
As I mentioned, my father once took me with him to the hospital. He was visiting a patient, a child, whose family couldn’t afford a private hospital. I was about 10 years old, and my father didn’t leave me behind in the waiting room as he did when I accompanied him on his rounds to other hospitals. I went along to see the patient; no one would stop us, he told me.
I don’t remember seeing the patient, but I remember my father looking in various departments for people who had worked there in the late 1950s, when he had been a resident. Like everywhere he went, my father found familiar faces.
As I read the book County, I felt I was learning about my father’s experience, understanding him better, even though Dr. Ansell writes about a different era. Dr. Ansell was a young resident in the late 1970s, full of idealism during a controversial time in the hospital’s history. His writing voice is personal and informal; he gives us a sense of immediacy if not urgency, as though events are unfolding in the present day, not more than 30 years ago.
Actually, events are still unfolding in the present. That’s why it’s important to read this book.
Photo credit: Cook County Hospital entrance, Jeff Dahl, Wikipedia.
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