WILD WEST OF MEDICINE: In his new book, Chicago native Dr. Jack Kamen looks back at his career as a doctor

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

You wouldn’t figure Dr. Jack “Yankel” Kamen would have a lot of eye-popping anecdotes in his nostalgic e-book memoir of kinder, gentler days as a general practitioner who made house calls in Northwest Indiana in the mid-20th century.

You figured wrong.

Kamen should have submitted his story to “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” decades ago. One female patient, Mary Ellen Dickinson, came into his office one startling day in 1956 asking for treatment when a key body part became detached – hence the title of his tome, “Can I Show You How My Eye Falls Out of My Head Now Doc?”

“She just walked into my office as a patient, Kamen, now 93 and retired in Indianapolis, recalled. “She was having a bridge game with some girls. She coughed or sneezed – and her eye fell out. Her bridge partners quickly left her house (in horror).

“It’s the first time I saw someone’s eye on their cheek. It was not an everyday sight. She could put her eye back in by pulling back her eyelids.

“I almost vomited.”

This was not a borrowed scene from an American International sci-fi film of the era. Apparently, a few folks were born with shallow eye sockets, and any kind of jolt can cause the eye to literally pop out. Kamen at first thought the woman possessed a glass eye until, amid his semi-nausea, he observed it was the orb with which she was born.

Nothing Kamen was taught in the medical school into which he scrapped and scraped to attend prepared him for his most unique case. And the local ophthalmologist to whom he referred the woman could not believe it at first, either.

“I called Dr. Henry Gordon, and he said we’ll fix her up with a glass eye,” Kamen said. “I said, no, it’s her real eye. I called a cab and sent the woman over to his office. He called me back and said, ‘Jack, this is the first time I’ve seen anything like it. He sent her to the University of Chicago, and they sewed her eyelids together at the edges to keep the eye in place.”

Dr. Jack Kamen’s parents in their kosher butcher shop on Chicago’s West Side.

The literal wandering eye is the most entertaining of many stories in “My Eye Falls Out of My Head,” co-authored by Kamen and daughter Joyce Kamen, now a Cincinnati-based public relations and marketing person.  Of course, the originator had to be a self-admitted “wise-cracker,” who talked his way out of the immigrant experience on the old West Side, rigged up soft duty in the World War II U.S. Navy, out-smarted an undercutting professor to get into medical school and landed a practice in Northwest Indiana because that’s how much bus fare he ossessed.

“Dad was always telling us these stories when we came of age,” said Joyce. “As Dad told the stories and regaled guests at our home, they were on the floor laughing. We felt, wouldn’t it be interesting to get stories on paper.  A lot of stuff is funny, but it’s also a look-back at how doctors handled their work then.

“In the 1950s, it was the Wild West of medicine. There’s a stark contrast between then and just how far we’ve come today (in medicine).”

Added her father: “Then we had a more personal bond with patients.”

The elder Kamen became part of the gritty industrial “Region” of Gary, Hammond, East Chicago and Indiana Harbor – featuring a tight-knit Jewish community – in an era when the steel mills were running full.

Kamen would climb rickety, dark back stairs to tenement apartments to make house calls. “I had a very satisfying practice. I enjoyed it because you felt you were part of the family structure.”

The care Kamen extended came out of his wits, his black bag and the more limited medical treatments of the time. Many outcomes, though, were sad. Who doesn’t have a family story of a loved one, usually a male, dropping dead of a sudden heart attack in his 40s or 50s in that era?

“A patient died in the back seat of my car,” Kamen said. “It was emotionally wrenching to have a patient die. Now they die with all the machines connected to them.  But we d a more personal bond with patients.

“It was 180 degrees from today. We did not have all the antibiotics and surgeries.  We were lucky to have X-rays. You had to use your common sense. You didn’t specialize in surgeries. Then, (in his residency at the old) Cook County Hospital with surgery, you see one, you do one, you teach one.  I did my own surgeries. Now you need a four-year residency in surgery.”

“When I began, ambulances were run by funeral homes. There were no city ambulances. You can just imagine the type of (emergency) care. Now, people drop dead from looking at their hospital bill.

“If you live in an era when you didn’t have it, you didn’t feel deprived because you didn’t know what you didn’t have.”

Kamen is a second-generation American. His parents emigrated from Poland in 1923, when his father, Abrom, opened a kosher butcher shop on Chicago’s West Side. But Kamen opted not to follow in the family business. Instead, he was interested in medicine. When the war came, he enlisted in the Navy, hoping to start his medical training in the Hospital Corps. Instead, Kamen was assigned to radar technician school.

When it came time to choose his seaboard assignment, Kamen picked barge duty. Already, he knew the angles of survival. Buddy Leon Schlesinger was surprised.

“Wait a minute,” Schlesinger said. “Don’t you know that a barge doesn’t even have an engine? It has to be towed from one place to another.”

“Right,” Kamen said. “I know that and that’s why I took the barge. Do you think that they are going to tow the barge where ships are shooting at each other? You could get killed!”

“But Jake,” Leon added, ”on the battleship you get steaks at every dinner and movies are changed every other night and there’s more room to walk around.”

“Leon,” Kamen said. “The name of the game is survival — not steaks or movies. I’d rather be on a boring barge than on a battling battleship.”

Schlesinger came to his senses and added his name to Kamen’s request for barge duty. But Kamen only went aboard once. He became a landlubber, working at San Diego’s sprawling naval base.

After his discharge, Kamen went to Roosevelt University to prep for medical school. He needed to ace his Histology class to qualify for admittance to Chicago Medical School. In an excerpt from “Eye Falls Out of My Head,” his trade of wise cracks with a “Professor Dropkin” proved the difference:

Kamen in 1942.

“There were four questions on the final exam —- each worth 25 percent of the grade. The grade of the final examination was the grade for the entire course. When the examination papers were distributed, I noticed one question that I thought was rather vague; to describe a myomere (a myomere is the cellular building block of voluntary muscles). Not mentioned was the species of animal myomere. I therefore raised the question as to the species requested. The professor’s sarcastic reply was, ‘A cockroach,’ which I gladly accepted (I had read the small print in his Histology book that described the myomere of an insect).

“It was apparent that the rest of the class instinctively knew the Professor meant a human or mammalian myomere. I was dumbstruck when, upon the return of the examination papers, I received a grade of 75 — a ‘C.’ It was impossible to be accepted into medical school with a ‘C’ in any of the sciences. I immediately filed an appeal with Dean Warren Courtelyou at Roosevelt.  During my hearing (involving Dropkin), I told the Dean what occurred.

“’Professor Dropkin,” asked the Dean. “Did you in fact tell Jake (the name by which I was known back then) to describe the myomere of a cockroach?’

“’Well, yes, but it was a wise-ass question so I gave him a wise-ass answer and he knew it.’

“’Did Jake describe the myomere of a cockroach accurately?’

“’Yes, he did,’” was the Professor’s response.

“’Then he gets an ‘A’ on the exam,’” said the Dean.

“Later that morning, I went back to the Histology laboratory to gather my belongings. Professor Dropkin was there. ‘Well, what will you do now?’ he asked. I said I was unsure; and then I told him how I was unable to get into medical school at Illinois and Loyola — though a career in medicine was really all I wanted. Then a surprising question from the Professor: ‘Would you want to go to Chicago Medical School? My uncle is the dean there and I could place a call to him.’ ‘Oh, yes!’ I replied.

“The medical school dean told his nephew that he should send me right over. I hurried out the door, repeatedly thanking Professor Dropkin, who several hours before had been my nemesis.”

Three years after marrying wife Shirley, Kamen set out to seek work in 1951. He had 50 cents for interstate bus fare, which took him as far as East Chicago. Disembarking from the bus, he noticed the Indiana Harbor Clinic. He was hired as a general practitioner, and established roots in the community. In 1960, he took his young family out to San Francisco for a fellowship in pulmonology. Then, upon his return to the “Region,” he applied to become an anesthesiologist at St. Mary Mercy Hospital in Gary. He was told the hospital had two Jewish doctors on their staff, fulfilling their informal quota. Detoured, Kamen hired on at Methodist Hospital in Gary.

But you couldn’t keep a good Jewish doctor down, no matter what the era.

“After one year, a Sister from Mercy Hospital called me and offered me a job,” Kamen wrote. “I was told that the Administrator of the hospital had OK’d another Jewish doctor at the urging of Dr. Gerald Thomas, one of the two Jewish doctors on the staff who had also been on staff at Mt. Sinai Hospital when I was a student there. I told them that I would only consider coming if all positions at the hospital were open to Jews, blacks and other minorities. The hospital agreed, and I went to work at St. Mary Mercy Medical Center.”

By then, Kamen had long added psychology as a necessary part of his practice. He had to learn the hard way as a medical student, practicing a full-body exam in 1948 on a nervous Holocaust survivor, Helda Weiner, who had come into Mt. Sinai hospital not far removed from a displaced-person’s camp on the supposition she was just getting a new prescription for glasses. Kamen was charged by his teacher with learning how to perform a full exam, and he was matched with Weiner because he was the only one of the students to speak Yiddish.

Kamen’s recollection was as follows:

“Helda’s face had a fearful, yet quizzical look. Her head tilted slightly as she looked at me. But she perked up noticeably when she heard my first words in Yiddish to her. At last! At last! Someone who could understand her! Someone who would set everything straight.

“’In fact, they don’t understand at all,’ she continued in Yiddish. ‘I came for my eyes. My eyes! MY EYES!’ She pointed forcefully at her eyes as she spoke. “I can’t read any documents. Everything is blurry unless I hold the paper real close. I need glasses. That is all. Do you understand? The Jewish Agency sent me here for glasses. That is all I need.’

“She had a look on her face that said, ‘This is nothing like the shtetl.’ Back in the shtetl, if you had trouble with your vision, you would go to the store there and try on spectacles until things looked clearer. You were rarely (if ever) sent for an examination. But here in America, a big city America, for all your medical care — including spectacles — you had to drag yourself to Mount Sinai Hospital, on the west side, in the heart of the largest concentration of Jews in the city.

“She came for a pair of glasses. I knew that. But I also knew that I had to give her the ‘routine’ (exam).  It was required. Now, how could I explain this to Helda? Start with the basics.

“’Now Helda,’ I began hesitatingly in Yiddish. ‘The nurses DO understand, and they did the right thing by having you undress to get ready.’

“’Ready? Ready for what?’

“I could have used another course in medical school here. Why didn’t they teach a class in ‘doctor-patient talk’?

“’Alright Mrs. Weiner. Let me explain. I know you are having trouble with your eyes, but did you know that there are many things that can make the eyes bad?’

“’They were bad in Europe and I had glasses there and they were alright for me. But I lost them, so now…’

“’Yes, but still there are many things that can make the eyes bad.’ She was much more attentive now. I felt buoyed. ‘Like diabetes or high blood pressure and…and…’ Damn. I couldn’t think of any more. Luckily I didn’t have to because she interrupted.

“’Yes, so we have to do a complete examination to see if anything else is wrong and then you not only get your glasses, but then you know you’re healthy!’

“Now she was beaming.

“’Yes, yes, I see. Alright. Examine my heart and for my blood pressure.’

“Uh-oh.

‘”Well, that’s fine Mrs. Weiner, but we have to examine everything.’

“Her brow furrowed and her head tilted. The quizzical look on her face returned.

“Everything?”

“I explained that the routine was to examine the part that the patient complained of last. That’s a safeguard so we don’t miss anything along the way.

“She didn’t like the word ‘routine.’ She had an expression of disgust every time the word came up in our conversation. I guessed it was because the word ‘routine’ reminded her of how good the Germans were at their ‘routines.’

“Then a look at Helda’s left arm stunned. I had never seen a concentration camp tattoo. There it was, everything — the long train rides in fetid cattle cars — the gas chambers — the crematoriums — the lampshades of human skin and other horrors and atrocities — all came rushing into my mind at the sight of the bluish-purple number on Helda’s arm. They were no longer the accounts and exposes that appeared in the newspapers, magazines, or the newsreels in the local theaters, or on the radio. They were real. Helda’s arm bore testimony to the suffering, the torture and the death of millions.

“It was several seconds later before I could come back to the reality of the examination cubicle. Ironically, Helda was more cheerful and talkative than she had been. She chatted with giggles and staccato laughter of what she was planning to do…her new job…her new home.”

Weiner could not compute her student doctor’s need to now practice a pelvic exam and how it related to her goal of improving her vision. Kamen picked up the narrative:

“’Just tell me what you are going to do!’” Helda was angry.

“’I’m just going to examine you.’” I repeated. ‘It’s nothing. Absolutely nothing.’ Regardless, Helda appeared to calm down. I was gloved and ready to proceed.”

But as the nitty-gritty of the pelvic exam began, Helda began shrieking and alternately screaming in Yiddish:

“’What kind of country is this America? Aa-a-a-gh! What kind? Tell me what kind?!!!  Aa-a-a-gh!!! What has my (rear end) got to do with my eyes? I see with my eyes! Not with my (rear end)! Do people in America see through their (rear ends)? It’s my eyes! My eyes!!!!!!!!’

“With that, and with astonishing speed, Helda jerked her heels out of the stirrups and got off the table, swooped up her clothes and ran out of the clinic. Barefooted, bare-bottomed, she ran out screaming the same words over and over:

“’It’s my eyes! MY EYES! What? What? What has my (rear end) got to do with my eyes? America! Feh! They’re all Meshugeh!’”

Kamen called the exam “gut-wrenching…As a third-year medical intern, I was not allowed to change any examination protocol without specific permission. I certainly would have…if I could have.”

Kamen the more experienced physician would have finessed such an exam in the future. He was proud of his training and his sensitivity, and the records of such. That’s why in his dotage, he was thrilled to receive a re-creation of his medical-school diploma, lost in a house fire in 1969, from Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, which had evolved from Chicago Medical School.

“Dad’s joy at receiving his new diploma was immeasurable,” said Joyce Kamen. They also sent him facsimiles of his med school transcripts. What a beautiful gesture of respect for Dad that was. The Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science valued and honored Dad in a way that is, sadly, atypical of the value our culture places on the quality of life and experience of senior adults in our society. His joy was boundless.”

And, as Kamen might say, eye-opening.

“Can I Show You How My Eye Falls Out of My Head Now Doc?” can be purchased on Amazon: at: www.amazon.com/dp/1732500606. The book’s Facebook Page is:  fb.me/funnypatientstories. A short video short about the book is accessed at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=s6nr7Ii0rKg

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