I opened Facebook the other day to a post that, at first glance, appeared to be a self written obituary: “I, Anne Kastor, died on July 5th of Ovarian Cancer at age 49.” Though I never knew her to be particularly active on Facebook, it seemed like something she might write. Perhaps an act of activism in the name of cancer awareness? Clicking the link I was driven to tears as I read that she was the one who had, in fact, succumbed to ovarian cancer at such a tragically young age. The “I” was nothing more than a Facebook formatting quirk.
Some way to find out.
Dr. Kastor was a primary care physican and a faculty member of the SUNY Downstate College of Medicine. Of the four years I spent at Downstate, Anne and I interacted for only three. But that short period has had a lasting personal and professional impact on me.
In 2006 I was a member of a group of Downstate students that organized around the idea of opening the first student-run free medical clinic in Brooklyn, NY. We kind of knew what we wanted to do, but we didn’t have a plan. We also knew that students couldn’t open a clinic alone. A physician and faculty champion was needed. Asking around, it became obvious that Anne was exactly the person for us. She had a reputation for caring deeply about her patients (imagine that) and for being a passionate advocate for universal access to health care. As her obituary said, she was a “life-long advocate for justice.” (See also this 2010 news item from Cornell)
No other names even came up. Downstate is a large medical school that is part of an even larger inner city medical center. But still, every single person we asked – medical students, faculty, and administration – referred us to Dr. Anne Kastor.
The beginning was tough. We couldn’t reach her. She couldn’t find us. Multiple emails and phone calls, appointments that had to be postponed, scheduling conflicts. Then, at some point, it just clicked. When we finally got together for the first time, I knew she was perfect. Anne was blunt and compassionate, and obviously had no patience for the B.S. politicking that public institutions are notorious for. That said, she also understood how the system worked, and knew how to work it to her advantage.
Anne met with the group regularly, and from the first moment she insisted we call her by her first name, not Dr. Kastor. She was the first physician I have ever known by their first name. This may not seem meaningful to some, but in such a formal environment it was like a beacon of compassion and practicality. We all complied, of course. All of us, that is, except HL (who I hope will read this) who, for three years, insisted on calling her Dr. Kastor, despite his own generally casual personality. I think this was driven by a deep respect and admiration that we all felt for her.
She always made herself available to us, arranged for meetings with hospital leadership, and generously gave from her wisdom. She gave us the freedom to explore all of our ideas while keeping close tabs on our work, and she never hesitated to rein in the group when our visions for the clinic bordered on delusional. Then, when the Brooklyn Free Clinic (BFC) finally opened its doors after 18 months of hard work, she become its first, and for several months its only, preceptor. That’s when all the other volunteers finally also got to experience the amazing teacher and compassionate physician that she was.
Anne was key to the development of the BFC. I know there was much more to her than this simple, minor act. But this is how we knew her. She was an amazing mentor to the leadership group. She was an inspiring clinician to all of the volunteers. And she reminded us that primary care is not dead. Even in this difficult practice environment, Dr. Kastor showed us, and taught us, the essential role that the primary care physician plays in her or his patients’ lives.
Her approach to medical care was hard-wired into the BFC’s operations manual and lives on in the generations of students who have grown in to physicians under her care, and in the weekly clinic sessions that continue to provide comprehensive, high-quality medical care to the uninsured in Brooklyn.
Thank you, Anne. I will miss you. We will all remember you.
(And sorry, Anne, I imagine you might have found this a little too sentimental)