There are very few books, let alone nonfiction ones, that make me shake with rage as I read them. It’s not at David Ansell, the author of County: Life, Death and Politics at Chicago’s Public Hospital. In fact, for a medical doctor who presumably hadn’t written much before, he has a natural grasp of detail and scene. And it’s those descriptions that have me upset. County starts off with something you’d never find in a private hospital: two busy doctors diving over the top of a filthy bathroom stall only to discover the patient they thought was in the throes of a seizure is just homeless and combative. There are rows of beds full of sick patients calling for nurses. Machines that don’t work and politicians that don’t care. A community dying, literally, for a broken healthcare system to be fixed.

County is Ansell’s first-hand account of Cook County Public Hospital from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. Now the Chief Medical Officer at Rush’s Medical Center, after hearing about the troubled county hospital in medical school, the idealist and iconoclast from childhood made Cook County his only choice for an internship. His commitment never lessened. Whether he’s discussing the rookie shortcuts and mistakes he and his unsupervised colleagues made, the protests they later led for better care and patient conditions, or programs they started—the Breast Cancer Screening and Sable-Sherer HIV/AIDS Clinics among them—Ansell’s dedication to his profession and former workplace leak through every chapter. He’s at his most moving when he talks about his patients: the woman whose blood pressure never went down after her grandchildren were killed on their front porch, the throngs who wait patiently for hours to see “the best doctors” (who really are the only doctors who’ll see the poor and uninsured), the woman who asked to see his newborn son before she died.

Part memoir, part history book, part call to arms, County is a quick, gripping read. Yet its impact lingers on the reader as much as the hospital itself lingered on Ansell. My train home goes by old County’s neighborhood, and I find myself craning my neck to find the crumbling façade of this place where so many lives were saved, lost, or thrown off course. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Ansell’s book will help us remember not just what was, (and Chicago public health care hasn’t changed too much since County’s time) but what can change with the help of passion and devotion such as his.~Liz

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