The Oath (To)

I spent my last year of internal medicine residency at the University of Minnesota Hospital in Minneapolis. The first two years, from 1967 to 1969, I was in training at the tumultuous medical acme of the radical ’60’s hippie rebellion, Mt. Zion Hospital, in the Fillmore district of San Francisco. During that time, I lived with my first wife, Kathleen, and newborn daughter, Gabrielle, on Waller Street—two blocks from the infamous intersection of Haight and Ashbury. I grew a beard. I visited Mexico. I smoked a few marijuana cigarettes, did some hash, neither of which improved me. I avoided LSD, too afraid of a bad trip. I visited the Fillmore West, occasionally. I imbibed the atmosphere epitomized by the sexual freedom league. Mostly I was a straight-laced, responsible medical resident sopping up the exuberance of the times, though careful not to be swallowed up by it. What I knew was that my medical training at Mt. Zion was inadequate, made me feel inadequate. I had spent most of my two years in San Francisco on my own personal emotional and social coming out.

It had been cool, my west coast sojourn. It had freed me, allowed me to break “all the rules.” Where else in the free world could you find patients and Doctors communally, openly, smoking marijuana on the medical wards of a reputable American hospital? To get high all you needed to do was inhale secondary weed smoke as you floated through the hospital,s wards for the uninsured.

I concluded I had to hurt, I had to work harder at my medical education, put in more hours, preferably at a more substantial medical training site, a university setting. The University of Minnesota Hospital in Minneapolis, 1969, was spot on for what I craved. I wanted structure and clarity after having indulged myself in the Lotus-eaters intoxication in psychedelic San Francisco. Comparatively speaking, Minneapolis was like going from Technicolor to black and white. From Athens to Sparta. Sexuality was once again infused with guilt. Conversation was restrained, subdued. I was almost immediately told to shave my beard off by an older professor. I had wanted more of a serious minded education, but a part of me worried that this was might be too much of the extreme.

Dr. Ebert, the Chairman of the Medicine Department, was in part my salvation. Eccentric, non-judgmental, frenetic and brilliant, he took a liking to me. Under his guidance, I could be myself, rewarded for doing so, and protected from intrusion by the rest of the establishment.

The university medicine department ran its counterpart at the Minneapolis V.A. Hospital. As such, university residents could take three-month rotations at the V.A. I chose to take the highly-touted infectious disease rotation. To do so, I needed to go on the V.A. payroll, which meant applying for a post and filling out a questionnaire. Two questions on the questionnaire were regarding loyalty to the USA. “Have you ever tried to overthrow the Government of the USA?” And, “Have you ever been, or are you now, a member of the Communist Party, the Nazi Party or any other subversive groups?”

When in San Francisco, I had become a charter member of the Peace And Freedom Party. Founded in California in 1967, the party’s candidate for president in 1998 was Leroy Eldridge Cleaver, a prominent early leader of the Black Panthers. Was the Peace and Freedom party considered subversive? Was voting for Cleaver an act meant to overthrown the incumbent president— Dwight Eisenhower? I chose not to answer the questions and was hired anyway. But a month later the VA bureaucracy contacted me, asking if I would please answer the two questions, as well a third one I truly had forgotten to check off: “Are any of your relatives employees of the V.A. system?” Since the three didn’t connect, the V.A. presumably assumed that all of my omissions were oversights. I answered question three and told the V.A. that I would be glad to answer the first two questions if supplied with a list of subversive organizations so I wouldn’t answer the questions wrongly. I was told that no list was available, and that unless I answered the questions I would be dismissed from my post at the V.A.

At about this time I discovered that civil servants working in the VA system, who had previously been required to answer these very same two questions, had challenged the constitutionality of the questions and had won the right not to answer them. I appealed to the V.A. headquarters in Washington, DC. Why did I, as a doctor, not have the same rights of refusal as civil servants working at the V.A.? The unsigned response was that the “tense” of the civil servant questionnaire was different than the one I had to answer. I was irked; the constitution shouldn’t have “tenses.” I refused to answer the questions and sought out the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union to defend my constitutional right not to answer the questions—a right that was recently granted to civil servants. They bit at the opportunity like a hungry bass at an over confident frog.

Behind the scenes at the V.A. I was getting pressure not to cause a ruckus. Dr. Ebert’s V.A. henchman, Dr. Maynard Jacobson, had been trying for a month to solve the problem while hiding it from Dr. Ebert. Finally the V.A. Chief of Medicine, Dr. Wendall Hall, called me into his office. He advised me that not signing the two questions could ruin my medical career. I was angry at his attempt to twist my arm, and I told him he was wrong. “If I am forced to quit my rotation at the V.A. all that will happen will be that my family and I will spend the remaining month in Mexico vacationing”. Dr. Hall was a man of few words, and so no more was said. As it turns out, he had just gotten out of the hospital for a depressive spell; I assume I didn’t help.

A few days later, I was shocked when I turned to the front page of the second section of the Minneapolis paper. There I was, my headshot front and center. The headline read ”V.A. Doctor Sues Over Oath.” I was working at the university hospital at the time and immediately sensed a tight cramp in my stomach. I walked rapidly over to Dr. Ebert’s office, my pulse around 150. I caught up with him as he was entering his office, Minneapolis paper tucked securely under his left armpit.

“Have you read the paper, yet?” I shakily asked him.

“No, I haven’t, Steve, why?”

“Well, can we go into your office?”

“OK,” Dr. Ebert answered, no doubt impressed by my heightened state of anxiety. We sat at the round desk in his office as he opened to the article and then intensely read it. Is this the end for me? I thought. My medical career was once again in the hands of my superior, who was about to say yeah or nay, thumbs up or down. Palpitation City! Ebert suddenly looked up at me and exclaimed: “What kind of nonsense is this, Steve? What should WE do?!!”

My mental state changed like lightning. I wasn’t alone in this. “Put me back on a university budget and I can go back and study in the V.A. microbiology lab,” I said. “As long as I don’t see patients and I’m not on the V.A. payroll, I can still be there.”

Ebert bolted out of his office, stood over his assistant and told her to switch me to so-and-so budget at the University. “Is this okay, Steve?” he asked.

I could have kissed the man. In that moment I would have gone into battle for him, even for an unjust cause, even though death was guaranteed. “Yes,” I said, subduing my desire to sing out my response. Typical Dr. Ebert, he ran off and never mentioned the incident again. The Civil Liberties Union won the case and the Feds appealed. They eventually dropped the appeal and the Harvard Law Review published the case as a landmark decision.

The following year, I went to work as an itinerant internist in Brainerd, in central Minnesota, a town of 10,000 people. The community was a hotbed of ultra conservative citizenry, many of German descent. The greater community was one of the last holdouts in the country in its resistance to fluoridation. They all seemed to assume the stuff was part of a sick plot being perpetrated by the nefarious federal government. The doctors were no better but I had to admire them. Their approach to criticizing others was to stab them in the chest, not in the back.

One day in the doctors’ lounge, a general practitioner—who often referred consultations to me—approached me and bluntly asked, “Are you some kind of Jewish communist?” He had clearly read about the federal court’s decision that was handed down that very week.

Always quick on my cerebral feet I blurted out, “No, I’m a Nazi. That’s why I dared not answer the questions.” The confounding retort brought stunned silence from my accuser and medical colleague. When I gave up practicing in Brainerd 2 years later, to accept a medical post in the US trust territories of the pacific on Truk Island, I left with fond memories and many appreciated friends.




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