Our neighborhood on the west side of San Antonio was an impenetrable Tex-Mex barrioisolated by culture, religion, language and educationuntil Old Doc Stein came along. He was a feisty, stocky man with dark, compassionate eyes, thick lips, wiry white hair, and he spoke massacred Spanish. Ambling into our neighborhood cloister one day, probably by mistake, he stayed on to dispense medicine, advice, education and lessons in God’s love masked by the Jewish toast, L’Chaim (to life!).
Although by heritage he was Jewish, probably European, we looked on him at first with curiosity. But the barrio needed a doctor, so we welcomed this strangerapprehensively at first, but as time went on, with gratitude and devotion. It seems odd that he should have taught us about true Christian love, about caring for others, about unflinching faith in Godthe kind that does not admit even a sliver of doubt.
I was 6 then, and little did I know that outside our barrio, the world was about to detonate. Europe was in flames. Everywhere Jews were desperately groping for someplace to go. As we got to know Old Doc, the idea that someone would want to annihilate him was incomprehensible. He was so brilliant, so willing to help, so accepting of everyone, so eager to work long hours keeping us well. Whatever the medical problem, the minute we saw him, it was in his hands, and we felt safe. What a relief it was to hear his Judaic, parallel speech patterns.
You’re not that sick, but then you’re not well, either or: You should worry to pay me? You think maybe I want to be a millionaire? Pay me when you can. And his voice would trail off one octave higher.
His office was a cramped labyrinth of peoplesome black, some brown, some white. He would thunder into his office like a Texas Blue Norther, conducting an unconventional triage that shredded the decorum of his properly starched nurse and her appointment book.
Here there was no red tape, no insurance forms to fill out, no myriad lab tests and none of the feeling of shame often experienced by modern welfare recipients. With him we all learned one indelible precept: rich or poor, black or whiteeveryone was equal. Later, teachers, parish priests, college professors would reinforce this concept, but Doc was the first.
Just think only about getting well, and believe in Gott’ and pray for health, he would admonish those worried about money. And a constant reminder would follow, You must not insult God by doubting him. Pray, believe, and he will hear you.
Medicine to Old Doc meant healing the whole person, first the body and then the memories of that illness. He freely administered not only the medicine samples that he had begged from drug companies, but also spoonfuls of his unshakable belief that whatever the illness, with God’s help it could be conquered. When other doctors had given up my 2-year-old sister as incurable, he told my mother: Tuberculosis is a bad disease, but she will get well. Have faith. At that time there was no known medicine to treat this disease, so he ordered a regimen of Vitamin B-12 shots, rest and blood transfusions until she finally recovered. We were grateful for Doc’s constant vigilanceone that included several unannounced home visits per week.
In his office, Gray’s Anatomy topped an old, battered, pigeon-holed desk stuffed with notes, prescription forms, old journals and books. His equipment, mostly second-hand, consisted of a bathroom scale, an old examining table, a white, rectangular sterilizing metal boxpiping hotready for shots, and always an ever-present, mileage-battered black bag. On the wall, almost unnoticed, his diplomas hung beside a depiction by Norman Rockwell of a doctor keeping vigil over a sleeping, sick child. To us, that picture represented Old Doc.
Every patient was important, and with each one he took timetime to listen, time to talk, time to individualize. As he listened with his stethoscope and thumped each patient, he asked about the family, the job, the school or the delicious home-canned peaches that your Mom sent in payment. Were those peaches? Were those peaches, or what? he would exclaim.
To the awkward teenagers blooming with acne: What? Worried about dating? You just wait, wait for those skinny schlemiels in the back of the classroom. They won’t grow up for a while, but when they do, they’ll see how pretty you are.
Everyone wondered just why Old Doc was working here in the barrio among the poor Mexican-Americans. Someone said that maybe because he was Jewish, he understood and respected our culture, our way of life. After all, Jews had always been persecuted, so they knew. Also, by living among us he could see that none of the stereotypes were true. We weren’t lazynot when we worked 10 hours a day; we weren’t dirtynot when every inch of our house and patio had to be swept clean before we went to school or work.
Someone said he had fallen in love, as some do, with the Mexican culturea culture that does not covet material possessions. After all, there were only two things of value to be appreciated in life: a good education and a close-knit family.
He loved all things Mexican: our confetti-filled fiestas with their food and merriment, our unending sense of humor even in bad times, our mariachi music, our early morning chorizo and egg breakfasts served outside in dewy-fresh backyards. He enjoyed stopping by after a particularly grueling day for coffee and pan dulce (pastry) on our front-porch veranda.
Slowly, this implant from another religion, another culture, almost another world went on raising our consciousness to what we could beYou must go to college, he told me once, or you will waste your brain and be forever unhappy. Along with dispensing medicine, he taught us, as strange as it may seem, to believe in miracles, in prayer, in God’s love. Occasionally, his teaching would digress into comparative religions.
You know the Jewish Yom Kippur? he would ask. That’s the Catholic confession and penance. That’s why we Jews fast. And the Seder meal? That’s the Last Supper or Holy Communion.
Years later, after Dr. Stein was gone, I was in a hospital about to undergo surgery for breast cancer. I was in the hands of highly trained, highly competent physicians. I had submitted to dozens of tests and was about to sign one of those pre-operative, physician-protecting informed consent papers listing all those possible dire and ghastly outcomes. At that point, I could have just as easily done without the information. I knew Old Doc would not have been so cruel. What I would have given for one of those Stein smiles that said, So, you think maybe this is the worst thing that could happen to you? Tell me, what are you going to do when you get out of here?
I know that in his own way, without realizing it or proclaiming it, Old Doc had been an instrument of God. Because of him, and because of all his years of looking beyond color, culture and economic status; because of all the times he proved that true, unshakable faith in God can be a powerful healer, I knew I would get well.
That was 29 years ago.