Obama’s former physician retires after decades at Hyde Park practice

Dr. David Scheiner
Dr. David Scheiner

Staff Writer

A longtime community fixture and former physician to President Barack Obama, Dr. David Scheiner has retired after 35 years of seeing patients at his Hyde Park practice and in their homes.

The Oak Park resident saw his last patient at Advocate Medical Group Hyde Park, 1301 E. 47th St., on Thursday, Aug. 14, capping off a long and illustrious career practicing medicine. One of a vanishing breed of doctors who made house visits and disliked electronic patient records, Scheiner was drawn to medicine as a youth by radio characters Dr. Christian and Dr. Kildare.

“I just thought that medicine was perhaps the most romantic life you could lead, it would be a life of fantasy. And as it turned out over the years, it actually was very romantic,” Scheiner said.

Scheiner, 75, was born in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1938 and moved to Atlantic City, N.J., when he was 8 years old. After attending a nearby boarding school, he studied pre-med and public policy at Princeton University and graduated in 1959. He then attended medical school at Columbia University and did his residency at the University of Chicago, where met his late first wife, Polly.

A desire to help vulnerable patients motivated Scheiner, an outspoken advocate for single payer health care in his later years. “I had often thought of going to Africa and being a missionary doctor,” he said. “But mosquitoes and parasites and snakes just scared the devil out of me, I just thought that was too much. So I figured, I’d be a missionary doctor in the United States.”

After a two-year stint at the Public Health Service Hospital in Boston, Mass., from 1967 to 1969 — where he served in lieu of fighting in the Vietnam War — he spent three years as Chief of Medicine at Chicago’s Mile Square Health Center, a Near West Side neighborhood clinic treating primarily low-income patients. Beginning in 1972, he worked at then-Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, and then at Mt. Sinai Hospital, until 1979, when he found his home base right here in Hyde Park.

At what was then the Hyde Park Associates in Medicine practice, Scheiner joined forces with another socially-conscious advocate of universal health care: Dr. Quentin Young. Young was known widely for treating Martin Luther King Jr. after he was hit in the head with a brick at a 1966 march in Marquette Park; Scheiner signed on as a partner at his practice. It was there that he met his second and current wife, Margaret.

“We had an incredible relationship,” Scheiner said of Young. “He was an advisor, a confidante, a friend; a man whom I admired more than anybody I’ve ever known in my life.”

In the years since he began working with Young, he also served as faculty at Rush Medical College, the University of Chicago Medicine and at Michael Reese Hospital, where he was an attending physician for almost three decades.

At his practice, Scheiner treated a host of prominent South Siders including late Ald. Leon Despres (5th), Studs Terkel, Jesse Jackson and President Barack Obama.

Scheiner began seeing Obama years before the young lawyer had even met Michelle, and he continued to see him at his office until he left for the White House. He fondly recalls a patient with a sense of humility — intact, even after he took office as Illinois Senator — and a presidential air that led him to ask during Obama’s first visit to the clinic whether he had political ambitions.

“He walked into the room and changed the atmosphere,” Scheiner said. “It was something about him that cast light on whatever it was.”

At the same time, Scheiner has been a fierce critic of Obama’s signature accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act. Although he is glad more Americans will have health insurance, he says Obama “gave up at the very beginning” by helping to pass a law that will benefit pharmaceutical and insurance companies.

Although house visits have gone out of fashion, Scheiner was a proponent of them until the very end — he made his last one just weeks ago. He says they helped him learn about a patient’s home environment, and that he found it romantic to perform his work a la Norman Rockwell’s classic paintings.

“A lot of the people I’d visit were debilitated, elderly people,” Scheiner said. “And some of them just couldn’t come to the office and I just didn’t want them to be neglected.”

Scheiner is currently relaxing at his family cottage in Squirrel Island, Maine. His days at the practice — bought out by Advocate Health several years ago — are behind him, and he says he won’t go into medical practice again because of the prohibitive cost of malpractice.

But he is considering volunteering at a free clinic or working to fight medical fraud. Otherwise, he says, he’d go crazy. During his career he fostered decades-long relationships with his patients, many of whom called him on his home and cell phones. Working as a doctor in his eyes involved round-the-clock duties, like being a priest, and he felt compelled to fulfill them even though it ate into his family life. His recent retirement from medical practice merely signals the beginning of a new adventure.

“I’m not going to stop. I can’t. It’s who I am,” Scheiner said. “And if you take the doctor away from me, I’m not sure what’s left.”

Editor’s Note: A reception in honor of Dr. Scheiner will take place from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 11 at Augustana Lutheran Church, 5500 S. Woodlawn Ave.