The Bookworm Sez

A review of "County: Life, Death and Politics at Chicago's Hospital"

By Terri Schlichenmeyer
Real AspenJuly 10, 2011
“County: Life, Death and Politics at Chicago’s Public Hospital” by David A. Ansell, M.D., MPH; introduction by Quentin Young, M.D. c.2001, Academy Chicago Publishers $29.95 U.S. and Canada 256 pages.

Buy it on Amazon
Exercise. Eat right. Quit smoking. See your doctor.

Your stay-well regiment is pretty easy. You’ve made those four steps into habits, you pay attention to your body, and you’ve managed to stay (mostly) well.

You want to live a long, healthy life. But what if you get sick – really sick – and need serious medical care? Will your insurance cover you?

Do you have insurance?

Throughout much of his career, David A. Ansell has cared for people who don’t. In the new book “County: Life, Death and Politics at Chicago’s Public Hospital” he writes about frustration, changes, triumphs, and patients he remembers.

For as far back as he can remember, David Ansell had a “soft spot” for the underdog, the downtrodden and the overwhelmed. He recalls being a young man, elated to find people that shared his beliefs on civil rights, the Vietnam War, and the environment. He became an activist.

So when he went to med school, it was with an eye to helping people who needed it. Upon graduation and in preparation of Match Day, he and a group of like-minded housemates deliberately chose Cook County Hospital in Chicago for their residency because the hospital accepted the uninsured and the underinsured, and because they believed that health care was a right, not a privilege. At County, he knew, he could make a difference.

When he got there, he found “third-world medicine.”

For years, Chicago’s movers and shakers tried to close County because it was underfunded, “decrepit… and depressing.” Patients waited for care - in long lines outside or on a gurney inside - in pain and without privacy, sometimes for 12 hours or more. The very sick, men and women alike, were treated in large open wards with little thought to modesty. Medicines were hard to get and patients often did without, and diseases that were curable often went untreated because appointments weren’t accepted.

Hundreds of thousands of Chicago’s poor – most of them, Black and Hispanic – came to County… or were dumped there. Loose supervision allowed young doctors to “sink or swim”, to improvise, to buck the system, to counteract city politics. The hospital was often overwhelmed.

It was the best job Ansell could ever hope for.

You could be forgiven if, upon seeing this book, you’re reminded of your favorite doctor dramas. Indeed, there’s a touch of Doug Ross and Hawkeye Pierce here, but remember - they are fictional. “County” is not.

Starting with frightening statistics, this isn’t just a memoir for a hospital. Author David A. Ansell also includes a good shot of his own life story, a few dishy work tales, some shockers, and kudos for colleagues who saw problems and founded programs to eliminate them. He ties it all up with a sense of outrage: that the system is unequal and laden with racism and that, despite political wrangling in the past few decades, very little has changed.

Though it suffers from an annoying propensity for short sentences (And incomplete. Three words. Sometimes less. Made me crazy.)

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