A Tribute to a Dear Friend and Mentor, Dr. Stein

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Dr. Kenneth Stein was a plastic surgeon and otolaryngologist who practiced for over 30 years in Chicago, IL.  Everyone I have ever met who knew him as their physician, friend, or boss absolutely loved him.  I am no exception–Dr. Stein was my physician before he was my mentor and friend.  It is for this reason that I felt compelled to write this piece so that the world might know the Dr. Stein I knew, and perhaps for a moment mourn with me at his passing.

Dr. Stein was a caring, understanding physician who listened to his patients, no matter how young they were.  When I presented to him as his patient with my parents, the first thing I noticed was that he made eye contact with me and listened to me.  With a gentle expression but a casual pat on the shoulder or knee, he made me feel relaxed and cared for.  He calmed my nerves with small talk about sports.  When I mentioned God, he without hesitation talked about his faith.

He was ecstatic when I decided to apply to medical school.  I told him I was thinking about becoming a surgeon, and he immediately invited me to shadow him in his plastic surgery clinic.  As he gave me one-on-one lessons in suturing and surgical techniques and answered the (probably very rudimentary) questions of a pre-medical student, his enthusiasm for the work was palpable.  Through candid conversations with him, I caught a glimpse of some of the practical challenges he faced with running a private practice.  These brief lessons in finance, inventory, and human resources management were lessons I would never receive in medical school.

Dr. Stein’s fun personality included a proclivity for singing, an interest in cars, 30 years of season Bears tickets, attending the Kentucky Derby, and becoming a wine aficionado.  Seldom did he ever talk about these things with me, though.  What did we then talk about?  Me, and surgery.  Every time we spoke, Dr. Stein wanted to know where I was in my education, how I was doing, and what my current interests were.  And, of course, he wanted to impart his surgery knowledge to me as his “next generation.”  At one point, he introduced me to someone as “the kid who might take over his practice one day.”  At the time, I laughed off the comment, assuming he was just being overly nice and cordial to me as a patient who had an interest in medicine.  Now, I look back on that comment with a certain sadness, because I am not sure I ever thanked him for believing in me from the start.

Every year, Dr. Stein took a trip to Central America to provide surgery to needy children through a charity group called Hearts in Motion.  In lieu of flowers, he asked that donations be provided to that group before he passed away in July of this year.  This was a man whose heart was larger than life.

I was scheduled to complete a plastic surgery rotation with Dr. Stein as the second-to-last rotation of my medical school career.  Recently, I participated in a plastic surgery as part of my current rotation, and was struck with a pang of grief over the fact that I will never operate with Dr. Stein again.  The words of his letter to my school still ring in my mind.  “I think that he will gain a great deal about the thought process and actual hands-on delivery of care that goes into being a plastic surgeon.  I wish I had this opportunity when I was a medical student.”  I surely wish I had this opportunity, Dr. Stein.

What was Dr. Stein’s practice?  It was more than surgery.  It was being a phenomenal boss to his staff.  It was being a civil servant to his fellow man.  It was being a mentor to young people like myself who shared his passion for using one’s hands to cure problems and improve lives.  It was the fiery enthusiasm in his bright eyes, his gentle, reassuring tone, and a friendly clap on the back that told a nervous young patient that everything was going to be fine.

His office manager spoke with me after his passing and sounded absolutely heartbroken.  She had worked with him for decades.  She told me “there will never be another Dr. Stein…well…unless you become like him.  You go and become like him.”

Dr. Stein, I know you’re listening from beyond the veil.  I have only this to say: Mission accepted.

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