Cook County Hospital

Practicing third world medicine in America? That’s what one doctor has to say about the conditions at the former Cook County Hospital in his new book, COUNTY: Life, Death and Politics at Chicago’s Public Hospital. Dr. David Ansell joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm to discuss the controversial hospital.

Dr. Ansell is an internal medicine physician. He serves as the Chief Medical Officer and Vice President of Clinical Affairs at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. He also serves on the independent governing board of the Cook County Health system. He began his career in 1978 with an internship at County Hospital.

Check out historic photos from the hospital in the slideshow below.

Cook County Hospital

Click image to view photo gallery

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 7 of Dr. Ansell’s book, titled “General Medicine Clinic.”

AUGUST, 1978. DOG DAYS IN CHICAGO. The windows overlooking Ogden Avenue were open in a futile attempt to induce a breeze. A kamikaze fly buzzed my head. The air was thick as syrup. My shirt was Saran Wrap plastered to my body. A distant rumble from trucks and cars that barreled past the clinic on Ogden waltzed its way up the four floors to the cubicle where I sat. The room was no larger than a closet. A chair and an examination table wedged in. No sink. A partition, about seven feet high, separated my stall from the next one. A polyester curtain provided a flimsy barrier between the exam room and peeping eyes from the hall outside. A pile of dog-eared manila folders and blank yellow-lined progress notes that passed for patient charts were stacked on the desk in front of me.

During the three years of residency, each internal medicine resident was assigned a half-day every week in the clinic. Interns were thrown in every August, just handed a schedule and told to show up. After a month on the County wards you were deemed ready to tackle outpatient medicine. I was led to my cubicle by a hard-nosed clinic nurse. Part clinician and part traffic cop, these nurses ran the clinics. The waiting area resembled Union Station, with back-to-back, church-pew-like benches, lined end-to-end down the center of the hallway. Stuffed with patients. Their eyes followed me as I passed by.

Technically, we were supervised by an attending physician. Mine was a well-known schmoozer. From my cubicle I could look down the hall to the office where he was ensconced like a night watchman, the door ajar, his legs on the desk and a phone receiver wedged between his shoulder and his ear. A sweet arrangement. We ignored him. He ignored us. Voices carried from cubicle to cubicle. No privacy. I learned outpatient medicine by eavesdropping on the conversations that other young doctors in the stalls around me had with their patients.

In the midst of the politics, the chaos, the poor physical condition of County Hospital, the hard urban rudeness of the clerks and other staff, my clinic cubicle would become a place of refuge for me. I was home. It was my calling to be a primary care doctor. There I discovered my patients and how their lives and illnesses were intertwined. It is where I learned to be a doctor over the next three years. Mostly taught by my patients. When I told people that I worked at Cook County Hospital, their imaginations took off. They conjured up images of the Emergency Room; urban violence; the Saturday night “knife and gun club;” grit and despair; track-marked heroin addicts who shivered and vomited in withdrawal; toothless Skid Row winos who slept off weekend benders. Urban trauma, alcoholism and heroin punctuated the story of Cook County Hospital, but there was much more to the place.

Excerpt from COUNTY: Life, Death and Politics at Chicago’s Public Hospital by David Ansell, M.D.

For more information on the book, click here.

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