In 1930, when Eric C. Kast was 14 years old, a fellow student at his school in Austria asked him, “Are you a Jew?” Kast hesitated, then said, “I, uh, don’t think so.”
Now, 58 years later, he still remembers that exchange vividly. It marked the first time he wrestled with the question of his identity. Of course he was not a Jew! He and his parents were dedicated, churchgoing Lutherans, Viennese Christians in good standing.
Yet Eric Kast also knew that he was a Jew, at least biologically. His Jewish grandfather had been the surgeon general of the Austrian army. His Jewish father was a well-educated civil engineer. But his parents had converted to Christianity years before, and they rarely discussed their ethnic roots. Eric, their only child, attended an aristocratic Christian school in Vienna. There he regularly heard the rumblings of anti-Semitism–a distant thunder that would climax a few years later in the storm of the Holocaust.
Austria in the 1930s, especially in its schools, was the acknowledged leader in Jew baiting throughout the German-speaking world. “Jews were no good,” says Kast. “That’s all I heard. I felt bad because I could not handle the tension emotionally. Even now it’s hard to talk about it.” At school Kast himself suffered no overt discrimination. “The discrimination was all inside,” he says. “Me against me!”
So the youth went searching for foundations to build his life on. When his mother joined the Catholic Church in 1935, Kast became a convert, too. When a family friend, the editor of a Viennese socialist newspaper, spoke movingly of the plight of the poor, Kast began studying the writings of Karl Marx. He became an active member of socialist youth organizations and Marxist study groups. He stirred a ruckus at his school by speaking out for improved benefits for the low-paid snow shovelers and maintenance men. “I nearly got thrown out,” he laughs. “I wanted the administration to do something about social inequity. They just saw me as a troublemaker.”
His identity problem assumed a special immediacy in 1938, when the German army marched triumphantly into Austria in a bloodless takeover–euphemistically called “the Annexation” (Anschluss). By then Kast was 22 and a premed student at the University of Vienna. He remembers standing in the midst of the cheering crowd that greeted the fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, as he rode down a main boulevard of the Austrian capital in an open-top limousine.
“I’ll admit I felt a thrill myself at the glorious idea of Austria and Germany forming one country, a fatherland,” Kast says. “That was something we had always dreamed about.”
His parents were less exuberant about the future under the Nazis. As he packed for a brief summer vacation in Italy, they urged him not to come back, to migrate instead to the United States, where an uncle lived. Regardless of their religious preference, they argued, Jews would not be safe anywhere in Europe.
Eric Kast did come home after his vacation, only to find his parents’ fears becoming reality faster than anyone could have predicted. As one German newspaper observed at the time, “The Viennese have managed to do overnight in a hundred ways what we [Germans] have failed to achieve in the slow-moving ponderous north up to this day. In Austria a boycott of the Jews does not need organizing–the people themselves have instituted it with honest joy.”
Sorrowfully, Kast packed up, bade farewell to his parents and friends, and left his homeland–probably, he thought, forever. “I can still remember standing at the railing of the boat and watching the European coastline disappear over the horizon,” he says. “I can tell you I wept bitterly.” A few months later, Jews in Germany and Austria endured the infamous Kristallnacht. Jewish-owned businesses were broken into and looted, homes were vandalized and ransacked, and some unlucky Jewish citizens, caught in the open, were murdered. That night, of course, marked the beginning of the horrors.
In the United States, Kast found refuge and a new stability. With the aid of his uncle, Ludwig Kast, he even brought his own parents to this country before it was too late. Kast settled in Chicago, got his degree in medicine at Loyola University Medical School in 1943, served his internship at Michael Reese Hospital, and set up a private practice as an internist at a Loop office. In time he became a senior staff physician at Michael Reese.
That initial confrontation with his Jewish heritage was the catalyst for Kast’s later self-definition. Over the years he pondered the diverse traditions that had formed him. And he fashioned out of it all a unique persona that is part Christian, part Marxist, part Judaic, and part humanist, with a bit of Freud sprinkled in for good measure.
What sort of human being emerges from this hybrid of seeming contradictions? Remarkably, one whose approach to life is so simple as to dazzle friends and befuddle critics.
It is 7 PM on a summer evening, and 31 patients are waiting at Saint Basil’s Health Service-Free People’s Clinic on West Garfield Boulevard. Most are black and elderly, although several mothers with babies and a few young men are sitting around. No wall or other demarcation separates the reception area from the inner sanctum where doctors and nurses reign. As a result, the five doctors, two dentists, and assorted lay volunteers on duty this evening mingle freely with waiting patients as they usher people in and out of examining rooms. The receptionist is a young college student from the neighborhood.
The clinic occupies the entire basement of the priests’ rectory at Saint Basil’s Church, and every square inch appears to have been put to use: there’s a triage room, seven examining rooms, a dental area equipped with two dentist’s chairs and drills, several small offices, and a pharmacy (once a large closet) stacked high with medicines.
And when they call it the free clinic, they mean “free.”
“No money exchanges hands here” says Barry Cohen, 31, a researcher with the national Cancer Institute who has given one night a week to the clinic for almost six years. “No money whatsoever! There’s no pressure to get people in and out, no pressure about paying bills or paying salaries because there aren’t any.” What the clinic has, says Cohen, is “a pleasant atmosphere and a group of patients who appreciate what they have.” Cohen, who is by now skilled in minor medical procedures, says he comes because he doesn’t believe the wealthy should monopolize health care, and the clinic embodies a radical shift in another direction.
Dr. Michelle Pearson, a 30-year-old internist at Cook County Hospital, for the last two years has volunteered one night a week. “I’ve seen a lot of health care environments,” she says. “I’ve seen sliding-scale fees and all that, but I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Another 30-year-old internist, Dr. Lori Soglin, who works at Near North Health Services, has also been a weekly regular for two years. “I’ll tell you why I come,” she says. “It’s because there’s a complete separation of service from payment. Working here is the favorite thing I do, medically, all week. And there’s a real community spirit. The people in the neighborhood, the patients themselves, chip in with their time to keep the place going.”
Dr. Edward Schaaf, 56, a dentist from the South Shore area, sees his two-night-a-week stint at the clinic as “Christian service,” as “giving back a little of what I’ve received.” So does another dentist, 36-year-old Dr. Michael Murzyn. “We all get caught up in making money,” he explains. “Here I learn the meaning of what life is all about, just by meeting human need. Besides,” he adds, “it keeps me humble.”
At the Saint Basil’s clinic (open from 6 to 9:30 PM Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday), patients, former patients, and interested community members volunteer their services, providing carpentry, painting, maintenance, and even much of the scheduling and other paperwork. “We’re more like a big family,” says Carmelita Poole, 30, a local mother of three who works as a receptionist and dental assistant at the clinic two nights a week. “The patients don’t even seem to mind waiting, and that’s rare from the doctors’ offices I’ve seen.”
“Compared to the places I’ve been, there’s no wait at all,” declares Zetta Pinex, a 64-year-old grandmother under treatment for chronic high blood pressure. “At County [Hospital], I used to come in early in the morning and sit all day long. I mean all day! If I have to wait an hour here, that’s nothin’.” When she needed special tests, the clinic arranged her appointment at Michael Reese Hospital. “It went fine,” says Pinex. “I ain’t seen no kinda bill from the clinic or the hospital, and I guess I won’t, either.”
The Saint Basil’s clinic, which has been in full operation since 1982, currently has 6,000 patient visits a year. The volunteer staff includes 35 doctors, six dentists, and about 30 specialists who accept referrals from the clinic, also free of charge. Most of the clientele is from the immediate south side, though some regulars come from as far away as Chicago Heights and Maywood. The primary service area–the inappropriately named “New City” community–includes decaying mansions along West Garfield, overcrowded old apartment buildings, crumbling two-flats, and scores of storefront churches. The per capita income level is among the lowest in the city, the infant-mortality rate among the highest.
The health care in New City and surrounding communities is “catastrophic,” according to Rudy Harper, executive director of the Organization of New City, which has been campaigning for improved medical attention to the area since 1975. “We’ve made some progress,” he says, “but what we still desperately need and haven’t got is more full-service facilities.”
Moving slowly through the clinic and addressing the patients by name is its founder, sponsor, and head physician, 72-year-old Dr. Eric Kast. With his gray beard, tousled hair, and rumpled medical coat, he has the disheveled look of a man unconcerned about social convention. His friend and colleague, Dr. Richard Shapiro, says Kast is “a fascinating man who has always dressed like an aging hippie.” Fifth Ward alderman Lawrence Bloom, a longtime supporter, notes that Kast’s informal appearance and haphazard manner belie a remarkable tenacity. “He marches to a different drummer,” says Bloom. “Eric has certain goals, and nothing will stop him from achieving them.”
Impossible to ignore is the constant tremor in Kast’s right hand and arm. When he is sitting, his right leg shakes as well, sometimes causing sympathetic vibrations in chairs, desks, and anything else the man is in contact with. He has had the affliction, a chronic form of Parkinson’s disease, for almost 38 years. “It’s gradually getting worse all the time,” he acknowledges with a kind of cheerful indifference.
He takes no medication. “I took a few doses of something for it a long time ago,” says Kast, “but not now. Drugs, they interfere with the immediacy of living.”
Of course, the condition interferes somewhat with normal activity. “I can’t do intravenous work or even put a cap on a tube,” says Kast. “I’ve had to teach myself to write with my left hand. But that’s all right. I refuse to see adversity as a negative thing.” Then he adds with a conviction that is almost intimidating, “I accept joyfully and gladly what the Lord brings me.”
Here, in the bowels of the New City neighborhood, Kast has chosen to spend his spare time practicing medicine and directing a clinic. And it is always “slow” medicine that he practices, insisting that his staff of volunteers practice slowly as well. “If someone has a cold or flu, we don’t prescribe a drug and send him home,” declares Kast. “We want to get to know the person. Illnesses, you see, are rarely only physical in origin.”
Kast personally interviews, for an hour or more, first-time visitors to the clinic. He inquires in his gently persistent style about their lives, hopes, and frustrations. “We talk about family, religion, sex, personal problems, a whole maze of matters,” says Kast. “And I talk about myself, too. It helps, I think, that people see I too am human. I too am sick, just like they are.”
Not everyone opens up to Kast at first, especially those who are accustomed to the assembly-line style of “fast” medicine popular in many clinics. Sometimes it is only after a third or fourth visit that patients relax, bare their souls, and perhaps find their bodies responding. Willa Mae Williams, a 47-year-old mother of ten, claims the clinic is the only place that has been able to control the “high blood” she’s been suffering from since she was 13. “The people are so kind and interested in you, you feel better before you take the medicine,” she says.
Kast, who had an 18-month residency in psychiatry, says developing personal relationships with patients is tragically undervalued in medicine today. “Years ago, people went to a priest, a rabbi, a confessor, or a trusted uncle for solace,” he says. “So I try to fulfill some of that function, to act as a priest-friend, a spiritual healer.”
Surprisingly, he says, slow medicine is a lot less taxing on the physician than fast medicine. “I’d be drained at the end of the day if I treated people mechanically,” says Kast. “I’m usually refreshed because I’ve developed personal relationships with other human beings. That’s why I think people like to work here.”
Kast also maintains this slow approach in his successful private practice (his downtown office is on Washington Street) and at Michael Reese Hospital. Naturally, some people think he’s “flaky,” says Dr. Shapiro, a surgeonn at Michael Reese who has known Kast for more than 20 years. “Medically, he’s very conservative,” says Shapiro, “very slow to recommend the surgeon’s knife, very concerned not to molest nature if possible. He spends a lot of time providing psychic stroking for patients. Eric Kast is one of the few internists I can refer welfare patients to and know they’ll be accepted and treated gently. And yet he’s not a bleeding heart, either. He’s practical in his medical decisions.”
In fact, Shapiro points out, Kast simply does in his practice what all medical students are taught to do theoretically; if he appears strange, it’s partly because he’s that rare creature who clings to the ideal.
When Kast attends Sunday mass at his parish church, Saint Thomas the Apostle, he is sometimes moved to tears. The most significant moment for him comes just after the consecration of the bread and wine, the symbolic memorial of Jesus’ death. “Do this in memory of me,” says the priest, echoing Jesus’ words. “What we are to do,” says Kast, “should be obvious. We are to love our neighbor as ourself, and we are to do so without asking anything in return. That’s what the gospel is all about. It’s how we are to love and how we are to be saved.”
Which sounds very orthodox, until Kast explains just how literally he takes those words and names the guides he has chosen for his journey. It all begins, he says, with self-understanding and self-love. But knowledge of self is frequently elusive, and self-deception can easily lead people down blind alleys. Kast believes that Sigmund Freud, with his discovery of the role of the unconscious, should be regarded as a major ally, not an enemy, in learning to know oneself, and therefore in learning to love oneself. “Yes,” he says, as if the point should be evident, “I am a Freudian and a Christian.”
Equally compelling is the command to love thy neighbor, a matter Kast has seriously pondered most of his life: “I can give someone food or money or stocks and bonds, and it does very little good. He will use it up and be as poor as before. So I looked at the mechanisms which make people poor in the first place. And I came to the conclusion that Karl Marx was correct in his critique of capitalism.”
Capitalism, he explains, is based on an exchange process. The provider of goods or services expects, indeed he demands, a return for what he offers. The shoemaker, for example, may receive money or chickens or a new hat for the shoes he gives a customer. And his eye is principally on that return, on what he’s going to get. That, insists Kast (and Marx), contaminates the relationship of the involved parties from the very beginning. The making of the product and the transaction lack love; there is no intrinsic interest in the neighbor. If the seller is a mass producer, then his emphasis is on quantity (making as many objects as possible for sale at as high a price as possible), while the buyer’s interest is in quality (getting as useful or long-lasting a product as possible at the lowest price).
“Don’t you see?” exclaims Kast, his whole body now trembling. “We have here an essential contradiction that cannot be resolved. I cannot follow Christ’s command and use you as an instrument for my own benefit.”
Marx probed in detail the dehumanizing tendencies of capitalism (and other traditional economic systems) in Das Kapital. In a capitalistic system, the objects produced (shoes, for example) seem to acquire an inherent value, unrelated to the people who produced them or even the needs of the people who use them. They become, said Marx, “fetishes,” material things that are viewed as possessing relationships with other material things–and even at times as having human characteristics. Money “earns” interest, deals are “consummated” or “aborted,” stocks “mature.”
Easily lost in all this economic busyness, said Marx, is the fact that people are really working against each other, climbing the economic ladder by clambering over someone else’s back or getting knocked off it by someone else’s greed. Safely buffered from this reality, the haves can dismiss the poverty of the luckless have-nots as the result of blind market forces, not human greed, selfishness, or indifference.
Kast rereads Das Kapital often for refreshment and inspiration, especially the chapter on fetishism. “I’m convinced Marx’s insights into the workings of society and the means of production point the way to a better world,” he says.
But Marx was a materialist who denied the existence of God and the human soul. He is generally acknowledged as the father of an economic system diametrically opposed to religious values.
That, says Kast patiently, is because Marx did not go far enough: “He understood how the means of production determine society; he did not inquire where the means of production come from in the first place. He didn’t understand the source of the creativity of the human mind or man’s quest for the spiritual.” Nor does Kast view Marx as the real founder of communism. “He was mainly the critic of a corrupt system,” he says. “He didn’t propose what was to be done.” The development of the communist economic system and the anti-God totalitarian state supporting it, he maintains, were the works of Lenin, Stalin, and others who misdirected the Marxist vision.
If the capitalistic exchange process is fatally flawed, what does Kast offer in its place? “Why, love of neighbor,” he says. “We should provide services or goods because our fellow humans need them.” The shoemaker should give away the shoes he makes, the baker should hand over his bread, and neither should expect anything in return except the satisfaction of sharing.
But that’s crazy, it’s impractical, it won’t work!
Kast laughs with unrestrained joy. “Of course,” he says, “it’s inconceivable, it’s crazy! The gospel is crazy! We’re still very far from the kingdom of God. But just suppose people started to live that way. What if we began to share with one another and loved without counting what we got back? Wouldn’t the people we love start to love in return? Wouldn’t what we give away in time trickle back to us in some form?”
The first step, he believes, is to produce “little germ cells,” hints of the kingdom. “Perhaps in time, selfless love will spread and take over, and the self-aggrandizing side of human nature will fade a bit,” he says. “Perhaps in another 2,000 years, we will have more germ cells, and the whole idea will seem less crazy. It could happen!”
And Kast excuses himself to tend to the patients waiting in his own humble germ cell, Saint Basil’s free medical clinic.
In 1967, when Kast was still developing his radical approach to life, city health officials appointed him the director of psychiatric services at the Lawndale Mental Health Center. Besides providing traditional treatments, he organized reading groups. Soon he had dozens of young west-side blacks reading Marxist literature and discussing the evils of the capitalist system. When word of that reached Mayor Daley, Kast was summarily canned. So he started a small, independent agency to help people pull their lives together, the Lawndale Association for Social Health. Once the program got noticed, the Illinois Division of Vocational Rehabilitation started pouring thousands of dollars into it.
“Well, that ruined the whole thing,” says Kast. “Everything got bureaucratic, so I resigned.”
During this period on the west side, Kast had met Fred Hampton, the charismatic young leader of the Illinois Black Panther party. “I contacted him,” says Kast, “and suggested we establish a free medical clinic for poor west-siders.” Hampton and his associates liked the idea. In 1969, the Spurgeon Winters Free People’s Clinic (named after a slain Panther) was opened in a building at 16th and Springfield; Eric Kast was its medical director.
Like the Panthers’ food-giveaway program, the clinic bolstered the party’s credibility in the community, attracted a lot of media attention, and scared the hell out of Daley and other city officials. Kast recruited doctors and scrounged shamelessly from his contacts in the medical community for donations of supplies and prescription drugs. Patients flocked in. “It was strictly a Marxist clinic,” says Kast. “The emphasis was on making people aware of class struggle, and there was no idea of spirituality whatsoever. But still the poor were being served.”
In December 1969, Hampton was shot to death as he slept in the bed of his west-side apartment. Evidence pointed to a planned assassination by a police team orchestrated by Cook County state’s attorney Edward Hanrahan. Although subsequent investigations and trials produced no convictions, the killing is still regarded by many west-siders as premeditated murder. If the aim of the raid was to disrupt and scatter the Panther party, it succeeded. Nevertheless, the free clinic, under Kast’s direction, continued in operation until 1971. By then, says Kast, the government-funded Medicaid program had expanded, and the ailing poor were not in such desperate straits. He resumed his private practice downtown on a full-time basis.
Then in 1982, as he observed the Reagan administration slash social service budgets, Kast grew restless. He attempted to open a new free medical clinic at First Presbyterian Church in the Woodlawn area. The local ministerial association, however, casting a jaundiced eye on this bearded, white Christian-Jewish Marxist, declined to cooperate. “Leon Finney of the Woodlawn Organization didn’t like me, either,” says Kast. “He called me a communist–he wasn’t so far off, at that!”
Ultimately, zoning snafus ended his bid in Woodlawn, so Kast headed west on Garfield Boulevard, seeking a location for a clinic at the large Catholic parishes along the way, most of which had convents, rectories, and other buildings standing empty or only minimally used. Four pastors turned him down. Then he got to Saint Basil’s. The pastor at the time, Father Bill O’Connor, offered the rectory basement, and the clinic has flourished there since. A continual stream of small donations and Kast’s cooperative network of lay volunteers, medics, and medical suppliers keep the clinic blissfully free of financial headaches.
Dr. Deborah Willis-Delahaye, director of the two-year-old federally funded New City Health Center (less than a block from Saint Basil’s), praises Kast’s clinic for the quality of services offered, particularly to the elderly and chronically ill. “They do very well with what they have,” she says. “Our relationship with the clinic is excellent. There’s no sense of competition. We’ve even hired some volunteers who’ve been trained at the clinic.”
But Rudy Harper of the Organization of New City has ambivalent feelings about the clinic’s presence in the community. “I’m not trying to bad-mouth Dr. Kast,” he says, “but what we need is modern, efficient, comprehensive medical centers with American-trained physicians, not some makeshift operation in a rectory basement with a bunch of volunteer doctors who come and go as they please.” Besides, complains Harper, Dr. Kast has ignored the community organization from the beginning, preferring the role of a “bleeding-heart white liberal” who doesnt require advice or input from the people on whom he chooses to bestow his services. People like Kast, says Harper, should be pressuring the institutions they’re associated with–like Michael Reese Hospital–to set up satellite facilities and provide trauma centers where they’re needed. “You know what area of the city uses Cook County Hospital more than any other area?” asks Harper. “Us, New City, that’s who! It’s because we have nowhere else to go. We’re unimportant to the larger medical community. . . . I call it undercover prejudice!”
Kast himself seems unfazed by criticism. The Saint Basil’s clinic works, he says, because it was opened “without a lot of foresight, only with confidence that the Lord would help us. You know, you can get bogged down in too much planning.” Community meetings and advisory boards hold little interest for one whose overriding concern is the immediate need of his neighborand who is planting a germ cell that just might germinate the whole planet–given a thousand years or so.
Rudy Harper is not the first or the only person to find Eric Kast somewhat difficult. Kast’s first two marriages ended in divorce. He has a grown son from each of those marriages, however, with whom he keeps in close contact.
He married his present wife, Margaret, in 1959 when she was 19 and he 42. Maggie (as she is usually called) says she is constantly amazed at Kast’s “almost gnostic outlook” on life. “Eric doesn’t trust appearances,” she says. “He always thinks the unexpected is likely to happen and what seems to be apparent may not be apparent at all. He doesn’t insist on consistency and integration in his ideas or in life. He tolerates a lot of ambiguity.”
For someone who despises the capitalistic exchange process, Eric Kast has managed to provide handsomely for his present family. The Kasts have four children–aged 9 to 22–and live in a large, four-bedroom Hyde Park house that has a dance studio on the third floor. “I would say we have an enormous income,” says Maggie Kast, a slim, agile woman with white hair. “I would say we’re extremely privileged.”
Maggie, whose father, Philleo Nash, was U.S. commissioner for Indian affairs during much of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, had no religious background or preference when she married, and for many years afterward she remained a totally secular person. But always, she says, she was influenced by Eric’s “depth factor,” his restless probing below the surface. Both were profoundly affected by the death of their three-year-old daughter in an automobile accident in 1977. Maggie began searching for a coherent religious approach, and in 1982 she joined her husband in the Catholic Church. “I think it’s only by coming to terms with death that you can live in this world,” she says.
Since joining the church, she has earned a master’s degree in theological studies at the Catholic Theological Union in Hyde Park. She now teaches, performs, and choreographs religious dance, using the studio in her home as a base of operations.
Maggie admits she and her husband have differences, even after almost 30 years of wedlock. “As a dancer, a person very conscious of the physical, I tend to say, ‘I am my body,'” she explains. “He, as someone with a physical adversity, says, ‘I am not my body.’ He thinks people who pay a lot of attention to their bodies are ungrateful or sinful. Oh, we can argue forever on that subject!”
Indeed, Dr. Kast believes people today are “so overly concerned about the carcass of their bodies” that they run after every health fad, even “anticipate” the diseases they’re likely to be hit with. The current concern about high cholesterol levels he views as an example of unwarranted medical panic. “My mother had a cholesterol level of over 600,” he says, “and she lived to be 90. I think surgical interferences–operations, that is–and medications are overdone in many cases.”
On the face of it, Kast’s disdain for the capitalist system ought to have put him on the brink of bankruptcy long ago. In his private practice, he bills patients only once, and he insists that the bills are “advisory only,” not absolute demands for payment. His billing company has repeatedly argued that overdue accounts should be turned over to a collection agency, but Kast will have none of that. “The whole question of profits is so silly,” he says. “I don’t care who’s paying and who isn’t. It’s not important.”
Several years ago, as an experiment, he sent personal notes to patients with delinquent accounts. “If you love me sufficiently to want to maintain my present standard of living,” he wrote, “I would appreciate some compensation for services. . .” The notes prompted such a flood of checks that he has not considered a repeat mailing. He remains, in fact, somewhat apologetic about being so pushy. “When you love people, when you establish relationships with them, they will love you in return in some way,” he says. “There’s no reason to worry.”
Everyone who knows Kast concurs that providence has compensated for his shortcomings as a businessman and organizer in the form of a woman who is as practical as he is unworldly. Jennifer Artis was a mixed-up 20-year-old in 1967 when she began volunteer work at Kast’s mental health center in Lawndale. The eldest of 11 children from a poor ghetto family, she recalls being overwhelmed with the “unfairness and inequity” of life. She had even contemplated suicide. “Volunteering helped,” she says. “I learned that if you keep busy, give yourself away, you have no time to think about your miseries.”
Artis has been Kast’s right hand ever since, in both his private practice and his ventures into free medicine. Both feel uncomfortable with formaltitles. “You can call me nurse, executive secretary, troubleshooter, whatever,” laughs Artis. “I don’t care.”
Now 42 and raising two children on her own, Artis is above all a no-nonsense coordinator–sometimes called “Darth Vader” by the people she works with. She puts in 60 hours or more a week–during the day at the downtown office and many evenings at the Saint Basil’s clinic.
She regards Kast with awe. “He has a gift I don’t understand,” she says. “I think it’s grace at its highest point, and I just have to marvel at it.” Artis says she shares “75 to 80 percent of his philosophy–the whole idea of giving without looking for return, treating everyone equally. I embrace that. I’ve absorbed that. I even believe in loving those I can’t stand. But more than he, I believe in planning ahead and telling people ‘thank you’ when they’ve done a good job. Those are things he’s not so good at.”
Life with Dr. Kast can get pretty chaotic, says Artis. “He wants the spirit to blow where it will,” she says. “So he may change a policy in the office on the basis of a Scripture passage he’s read or a sermon he’s heard on Sunday. I’ll arrive in the morning all set to get some work done, and I’ll see that twinkle in his eye and I know my day is shot! He wants to talk about the gospel!” Sometimes, too, an office decision will have them arguing toe to toe. But nothing happens in Kast’s professional life without an opinion from Jennifer Artis.
Would Kast survive long in the capitalistic world without the practical-minded Artis? “I don’t think so,” she says candidly. “The mix of myself and Kast is great! I think God uses his gift and my gift together.”
Kast agrees. He is forever calling her in for a lost file, the phone number of a patient, or the forgotten name of an associate. “She is my salvation,” he says.
“As far as I can see,” says Alderman Bloom, who knows them both well, “Jennifer does most of the grunt work that makes the whole project work.”
“Working with Dr. Kast is a joy in the long run,” Artis declares. “We laugh a lot at ourselves, and you’re never sure what’s going to happen next. Life is never a bore!” It is true, however, that Artis often stays at the downtown office for several hours after Kast has gone home. “It’s a lot easier to get things done when he’s not here,” she says.
The one element in today’s society that most galls Kast is industrialized medicine. “I am upset,” he says, “to see my beloved profession debased–the gross advertising, the commercialization, the competition for profits. Those things can bring me to tears.”
He remembers back in the mid-1940s when he and other young doctors in training took their turns in the Mandel Clinic (for outpatients) at Michael Reese. “We were so enthusiastic about our work,” he says. “We looked forward to those days. We worked there for nothing, and we loved it because we took pride and joy in an accurate diagnosis, in doing well what we had learned to do.”
Now, he adds sadly, physicians feel exploited if they’re not paid well: “They equate price with quality care. They need a lot of money as a prestige symbol. They really fear they will be despised by their colleagues if they don’t always charge top dollar.” Inevitably, Kast returns to his favorite theme–the symbiotic union he’s made between Marx and Jesus. “Somehow we must disconnect the profit motive from service of neighbor,” he says. “I think that’s basic.”
Here is the way he puts it in an article published in Chicago Medicine: “The ministerial aspect of medicine is neglected in the mechanization of the doctor-patient relationship. . . .
“What is to be done? In no way do I propose a return to the horse-and-buggy days with their impotent and inadequate care and uninformed patients. Even if it were possible, that would negate the benefits derived from the industrialization of medicine. We should produce care for its own sake with love and an open hand and heart. The physician must walk the narrow path between two temptations: the self-satisfaction of the feudal position he or she still enjoys to a certain extent, and the profitability of the business role now offered. We should minister to patients precisely because of our ability to do so, and open our doors to anyone who knocks and not stop our concern and care for our patients when compensation stops.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.