Sander Kushner, D.O.’60, FACOFP, gave up his family practice a few years back, but the Suttons Bay, MI, doctor never gave up being a family physician.
The 78-year-old doctor of osteopathic medicine, who worked the last decade in Leelanau County and spent the last four years at the Leelanau Urgent Care, retired Dec. 29, 2012, after 52-plus years of practicing medicine.
“I just love what I do,” Kushner said recently. “I’m going to miss it. I stopped deliveries 10 years ago, but I’m still all into listening to the heartbeat and offering counseling.”
Kushner, a former chairman of the department of family medicine at Wayne State University, came to Suttons Bay in 2003 after leaving a practice in the Detroit area where he was one of eight doctors.
Although he had a place at The Homestead, a condominium near Suttons Bay, for 30 years, Kushner was looking for a permanent residence when he heard that Dr. Fred Lamb was interested in selling his practice in Suttons Bay.
“It was a walk-in clinic, but it was really a house with one exam room and a lobby,” Kushner said. “It was too ideal. He called it an urgent care center, but it really was a family practice. It was for families that didn’t really have a doctor.”
When Kushner started practicing in Leelanau County, he took off his white jacket and tie. The jacket hung in his office until he retired.
“I haven’t worn it in the last 10 years because patients want to see you like this,” said Kushner, who was dressed in casual attire. “They don’t want to see a barrier.”
From Day 1 in Suttons Bay, Kushner loved his new venue. He was open three days a week, Fridays through Sundays. He continued working those same days at the Urgent Care.
“This was such a breath of fresh air,” he said. “I gave my own shots, my own EKG and did some minor surgeries. It was wonderful because I didn’t have the bureaucracy of a hospital.”
Kushner and Dr. David L. Lemak opened Leelanau Urgent Care in 2009. Lemak, a former emergency physician from Chicago who had also run a walk-in clinic in Lake Leelanau, says it was a perfect match.
“It worked out well,” Lemak said. “Although we were both in medicine, we had different talents. Sandy’s talents included being an educator, but he had a family practice and what he liked better than anything was the thrill of the hunt. He could do a good laceration repair but liked the more challenging and difficult cases and putting it together.”
The two doctors worked different shifts, but often talked about interesting cases.
“There aren’t many as overqualified to be in an urgency care setting,” Lemak said. “With all his years of experience, he could have handled anything that walked through the door.”
When Kushner started practicing medicine, there was no health insurance. Office calls were $4, a shot was a $1 extra and house calls were $6. It stayed that way until about 1970, he said.
When patients couldn’t afford the fees, Kushner said there was always “bartering.” He said he did more of it up north and received some prized morel mushrooms and cherries in return for services.
For decades in the Detroit area, Kushner regularly worked 12-16 hours day. He did house calls on his way to and from the office in his first decade of work. His morning house calls came after making rounds at the hospital.
Kushner said most family doctors stopped delivering babies 20-25 years ago. He delivered babies until the early 2000s.
“When I gave up delivering babies, I was unhappy about it, but it got to be just too much,” he said. “You couldn’t be up till 2:30 in the morning delivering a baby and get back in your office at 8 a.m.”
Kushner said he’s delivered more than 3,000 babies in his career. “I’ve delivered the babies of their babies and their babies,” he said. “That’s three generations. And I get letters and pictures of them all the time. It’s a nice feeling.”
Kushner said he was one of the early birds when it came to hospital rounds.
“I’d be at the hospital by 5 a.m. and leave by 7 a.m.,” he said. “It was a great time because nobody would bother us. I’d get the history, find out how they were doing and tell the nurses what I wanted. I did that my whole career.”
Kushner said technological advances have changed the way medicine is being practiced today, many of them for the good. “There are more specialists and subspecialists,” he said. “When I came into family practice, we did it all. The technology has been just overwhelming.”
Some of the changes, however, Kushner didn’t welcome — like being unable to prescribe what he thought was the best drug for his patient.
“It’s certainly less pleasurable today. The closeness between doctor and patient isn’t there,” he said. “Now there’s somebody between the doctor and patient making decisions and they’re only thinking of it from a dollar standpoint. For a while, it was just insurance companies. Now it’s the insurance company plus the government.”
Kushner, who was the first in his family to complete high school, is the son of a Russian immigrant. His father was an upholsterer. Kushner thought he’d be an artist while attending Cass Tech High School.
Even though he completed the arts program at Cass Tech, Kushner decided that he couldn’t make a living at that and thought about going to college. He decided his career path shortly after going with a friend to a doctor to get a recommendation for med school.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he recalled. Kushner graduated from DMU and did his graduate work at the University of Detroit. He had offices in Dearborn Heights and Northville and he spent his last 15 years in the Detroit area teaching med students at Wayne State.
Kushner said family doctors “never become a millionaire,” but the job is just as rewarding.
“A simple ‘Thank you,’ that’s rewarding,” he said. “Or when I get a card at Christmas and a former patient says, ‘I hope you are well and thanks for saving my life.’ Whether I did or not, it’s a great feeling!”
Kushner, who has traveled extensively, said Leelanau County is his favorite place to be. “It is the most wonderful place in the world to live,” he said. “I’ve traveled a lot in my career and have seen a lot of the world. There is nothing as nice as this.”
Kushner, whose first wife of 30 years has passed on, has three children and eight grandchildren. His daughter Wendy, who lives on Old Mission Peninsula, is married to Sander Weckstein, M.D. His son, David, is a doctor of obstetrics and gynecology and the director of gynecologic oncology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison. Kushner’s other daughter, Marla, is a family practitioner in Chicago. One of his grandsons, Ethan Weckstein, recently informed him he’d been accepted at Midwestern University’s Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine.
“Being a doctor is a good life,” Kushner said. “Some doctors tell their children not to be one because it’s a hassle and it’s changing and it’s not going to be the way it was. I told my kids, ‘If you love it, and love people, go for it.’”
In his retirement years ahead, Kushner plans to sail more and enjoy his family and Leelanau County more. He also volunteers his services at least one day a week at the Traverse Health Clinic in Traverse City, which serves indigent patients. He recently returned from one of his medical service trips in Guatemala.
“I’m still practicing medicine. I just don’t get paid for it,” he told DMU Magazine. “I now have time for a lot of other things, but I still enjoy practicing medicine.”