Having been thoroughly confused by what everyone tells me about President Clinton's health plan, I decided to seek out Dr. Eckstein the other day for his opinion.
He had just finished a morning jog when I arrived at his home. He was wearing shorts and drinking a tall glass of water. It was the first time I had ever seen him without a jacket and tie.
Eckstein is not a celebrity doctor. Now middle-aged, he does not appear in advertisements promising to clean out your arteries or fix your eyes so you will no longer have to wear glasses. He has never owned a sports franchise.
And yet, when the Mayo Clinic recently decided to do an institutional campaign aimed at gaining trust, it was Dr. Eckstein it chose to illustrate as its typical doctor.
He specializes in internal medicine. If you are not certain what's ailing you, Eckstein will sit down and talk to you for what seems like a long time. You always wonder why he seems to have so much time. Then he will see to it you get the right tests. Later on, he will explain thoroughly how he has come to the decision he thinks is right for your case.
Word of mouth on John Eckstein among his patients is that he is terrific. Ask those who have been treated by him and you always get the same answers. Women say, "He's wonderful." Men say, "He's smart and I trust him."
Eckstein became a doctor because he admired his father, Albert, now 85, who was also a doctor.
"The apple doesn't fall far from the tree," he says, chuckling. "He is a really good man, a caring and compassionate doctor. I watched him practice medicine from an office at Ninth Street and McDowell here in town as I grew up."
He tells a story about his father, who is now retired.
"When he arrived in this country from Hungary with his seven brothers," Eckstein says, "the authorities decided that the youngest brother was too frail to be admitted. They held him at Ellis Island. My father decided to stay with his brother. If his brother wasn't going to be admitted, he would go back to Europe with him. Five days later, they were both admitted."
Eckstein's father made excellent grades at the University of Pittsburgh in the late 1920s, but was not admitted to the medical school because of a Jewish quota that then existed.
So Albert Eckstein went to Frankfurt, Germany, to the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe medical school. While Albert was studying anatomy, Adolf Hitler became Germany's chancellor. Only because he was an American citizen was Albert allowed to finish medical school.
John Eckstein smiles at the irony of the tale.
"When I was growing up," he says, "it turned out that I got good grades in science. So I went to medical school at the University of California in San Francisco and then did my residency at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota."
He has been a dedicated student of medicine ever since.
"There is no question changes must be made," he says in discussing the health plan. "We can't continue drifting this way. We'll go broke as a country and there will eventually be a revolt among the people."
He thinks the future calls for hard choices.
"What kind of care are we going to provide?" he asks. "There are some ethical choices in medicine that must be addressed."
For one thing, Eckstein points out that if the millions of people who are currently uninsured are given cards for free medical care, there will not be enough doctors to handle them all.
He stresses that there is already a shortage of doctors who specialize in primary care. Many doctors run up tuition loans of $100,000 during medical school and thus gravitate to specialty fields in which pay is much higher.
"When I was in medical school, the internist was much admired as someone whose breadth of knowledge in the field was so wide," he says. "If we are going to get doctors back to practicing general medicine again, we must make it seem more attractive."
Eckstein wonders how the Clinton health plan will view some procedures that now receive great amounts of publicity.
How will we treat young children? He cites the example of the expensive surgery that was recently employed to separate Siamese twins who had only one heart.
"We ought to say that an operation like that is research and that it must be paid for by the government because there is a lot of knowledge to be gained.