Chapter 02: Medical School and Residency in Chicago and a Growing Interest in the Science of Medicine
In this chapter, Dr. Freireich talks further about attending medical school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, interning at Cook County Hospital, and why he got fired from Cook County Hospital.
The Making Cancer History® Voices Oral History Collection, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
Professional Path; Evolution of Career; Military Experience; Inspirations to Practice Science/Medicine; Influences from People and Life Experiences; The History of Health Care, Patient Care
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History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Oncology | Oral History
Emil J Freireich, MD
Yes. There was nothing wrong with my leg. I was doing fine, but I was 4-F. The counselor comes around, and he interviews me. "Yeah, I'm 4-F. Here are my papers." He says, "Okay. You're eligible for rehabilitation." Now, this is great stuff, because it turned out that to go to medical school, tuition wasn't $6, it was $1,000.
Lesley Brunet, MA
Emil J Freireich, MD
It was $1000 a year. Now it's $25,000. It being $1000 a year, there was no way I could go to medical school. I asked the William J. Cook Fund for money, and they said, well, they could do the books, but they couldn't pay tuition. They didn't have that much money. So this guy saved my life. I was on rehabilitation. I owe my MD degree to the taxpayers of the state of Illinois who paid for my tuition and my books.
I went to medical school in 1945. I intended, from day one, to be a family doctor. I wanted to be like Dr. Rosenbloom. There were a lot of veterans getting discharged at that time. We were scaling down. When the entering class got addressed by the president, he said there were 200 applicants for every position in the University of Illinois. It was very competitive, and they were all military guys. The V-12 and the ASTP were still functioning. Half the class was active military, the other half were veterans, and there were a couple of 4-F guys like me.
Medical school was kind of uneventful. It was in Chicago, so I lived at home with my mother and my sister. I used to ride the L every morning to go to school. It turned out I did pretty well in medical school in terms of grades. When it came time to graduate, you had to pick a place to be an intern. The University of Illinois has a university hospital. It's kind of like our medical center. Across the street is the largest city-county hospital in the country, Cook County Hospital. Cook County Hospital was the teaching hospital for University of Illinois.
We had the largest medical school class in the country in 1945. Even in 1995, they had the largest medical school class in the country. University of Illinois is a very socially conscious medical school. They want to produce. They want to get poor people, get them educated, and get them back into the lower socioeconomic neighborhoods. They trained a lot of blacks. We had the largest female class in history. In my entering class, we had 30 women and 200 students total. They had a lot of students for the research hospital, so we all trained at Cook County.
It was an interesting experience, because the teaching was done by the house staff. The house staff is very pragmatic. "This is how you do this. This is how you do that." You get theory in your classes, but you go to County and get your hands dirty. When we had to choose our internship, I decided I wanted to go to Cook County. They had an exam, and it was very competitive to be a County intern. I didn't make the first cut, so I was very depressed. My second choice was Michael Reese. That was a private hospital, which was our other teaching hospital. Michael Reese had a lot of very sophisticated scientists. I was beginning to get interested in the science of medicine. I was doing well in school, and I ended up sixth in my graduating class. The science of medicine was appealing to me, but I still wanted to be a family doctor. It turned out that someone turned down the job to take something else, and I got accepted at Cook County Hospital. I was thrilled and happy to start my internship at Cook County Hospital. At first, having a lot of responsibility over life and death and a lot of power is very appealing to young people who have been students, standing around and watching, but after a while, you begin to recognize your limitations. Being an intern was fun. I did OB; I delivered 100 babies. We used to admit 25 patients a night on Internal Medicine.
Things were going along pretty well, but it was obvious that after a year I had learned everything I could in that place. We were just dealing with things like gunshot wounds, stabs, and septic abortions. To be a family doctor, I thought I ought to know something a little better than that. I had a couple of confrontations with the administration about things that I didn't like the way they were running, and I was the intern. I was supposed to be in charge. I had a couple of spats with my resident.
Finally, on Medicine 55, I had a confrontation with the head nurse. I had a patient that I spent a lot of time on. A guy came in with heart failure, and I had learned a lot about heart failure and how to give mercury, digitalis, dehydrate, and control his rhythm. I spent a lot of time on him, all night long, and I'd finished. We used to work 36 hours on and 12 hours off. I got some time off, and I came back after my 12 hours off. "Where is Mr. So-and-so?" "Don't worry about Mr. So-and-so." I said, "Where is Mr. So-and-so?" "Well, he's in Room 1822." So I went into Room 1822, and it turned out, unbeknownst to the house staff, the nurses ran a hospice, but it wasn't dignified. It was a room where they put the patients they decided were hopeless. They moved them into this room, bumper to bumper, until they died. They just lie in their feces and urine and die.
This guy was lying in that room, and I walked in, and I said to the nurse, "This is ridiculous. I didn't tell you to put this patient in there." "Dr. Freireich, you're just an intern. I've been here 20 years." The administrator called me in, and he said, "I think you ought to leave." I'd signed up for a 2-year internship, but I said, "Well, I agree." I was depressed that I was fired, but it's been a pattern in my life. I've always been fired. It's kind of like going to school. Most people think that they have a goal and they pursue it, but really you move around in the environment in which you're directed. Virtually everything in my life has been decided by others who are smarter than me.
Freireich, Emil J. MD and Brunet, Lesley W., "Chapter 02: Medical School and Residency in Chicago and a Growing Interest in the Science of Medicine" (2001). Interview Chapters. 150.
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