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Column Thu Apr 23 2009
This is a repost from Mike's personal blog.
On June 19, 1973 I was brought into the world in a delivery room at Michael Reese Hospital. Eight years later my little sister did the same. In between those years my mother, Barbara, conducted research on infant development at the hospital's Child Development Center.
From my childhood I remember an enormous campus, dozens of buildings, underground tunnels, bustling with activity and life. My mother and her colleagues lectured me on how Reese had the first neonatal ICU, developed the first preemie delivery methods, had the first real cancer treatment centers and was a light of hope and medical greatness for the world -- not just Chicago's South Side.
Over time the hospital began to slide. I've heard numerous explanations: Chicago Jews no longer felt the need to go to a "Jewish hospital"; the hospital disproportionately suffered from Blue Cross/Blue Shield reducing it's reimbursement rate in the early 1980's; it didn't have a high enough payer mix to compensate for the many poor people that lived in it's catchment area. Personally, the slide was brought home by my mother as she periodically announced over dinner new layoffs at Reese every few months, "another 200 nurses laid off today."
Because she was a dogged grant writer, my mother's position -- and her research -- at the Child Development Center (CDC) was considered safe. Like a good mother, she would regularly channel some of the funding to my pockets in return for aggravatingly boring test result tabulation. In the summers I would ride with her to office in the Kaplan Pavilion to color-code dot-matrix print outs in a cubicle, and chat with the nurses and administrative assistants in the break room.
But year after year more and more people at the CDC were laid off -- providing more empty cubicles and fewer people in the break room -- until finally my mother, who's work was largely funded by grants, was finally named "Director" of the CDC. I swear she almost spat when she told me about her new title.
But this Pyrric victory arrived years after Humana. By 1990, non-profit Michael Reese groped for a savior and was snatched up by for-profit Humana hospital. The sigh of relief at the hospital was palpable as my mother's friends prayed they would not be on Humana's next inevitable layoff list. Everyone knew: The hospital was too big, it would have to shrink. Humana would cut somewhere.
Not surprisingly, Humana's takeover of Michael Reese was a dud. Health care was changing and Reese didn't change fast enough. By 1998 -- seven years after Humana took control -- Reese was back on the block. Eventually the hospital was turned over to a new non-profit board led by the hospital's doctors.
By now however, Reese was crippled. It lacked out-patient satellite facilities, modern buildings, a serious capital budget and most of the wealthy Jewish patrons had moved on to Northwestern Medical Center and the University of Chicago Hospitals. It never had a chance.
Despite all this, the hospital provided better care than most. My constantly ill surrogate mother (it seems wrong to call her "nanny"), Inez, always insisted on going to Michael Reese over Mercy, University of Chicago, or (shudder!) South Shore Hospital. The nurses was always kind and the doctors thorough and patient. For months after she broke her hip they gently coaxed her to try to walk -- despite her tears and insistence that it was impossible.
So much effort expended on an octogenarian black woman on Medicaid. Almost 12 years after my mother had left Reese, and as bankruptcy lawyers stared down the hospital, they were still providing good care to people in need. It seemed out of place in today's health care.
There has been a great deal of documentation on the architectural losses Chicago will suffer when Reese is demolished for the planned 2016 Olympic village. Often forgotten is that although the hospital was first built in the 1880s, most of today's Michael Reese Hospital campus was developed as part of a 1950s urban renewal plan. The hospital's old neighborhoods, The Gap and Prairie Shores, were once crowded black tenement neighborhoods, where Chicago elected its first black Alderman and the Black Panthers were once headquartered.
Michael Reese Hospital, slated to close sometime in the next year, will soon be wiped from the map, just as the neighborhoods before it were erased. But I will never forget the brilliance and kindness that lived there for a while.