Northwestern Medicine

Rabbi Follows Calling to New Career in Internal Medicine

June 20, 2013

Thirteen years ago Eleanor Smith, the rabbi of Beth Emet synagogue in Evanston, left her position there to follow a new calling that was pulling her toward a career in medicine.

EVANSTON, IL – After graduating from the University of Chicago medical school and completing her residency, Smith is back in Evanston practicing internal medicine with the Northwestern Memorial Physicians Group (NMPG) at its new Northwestern Medicine clinic. “As a rabbi, I saw how illness and disease create so much fear and uncertainty in people’s lives, and I developed a strong desire to understand human physiology and pathophysiology to complement my understanding of the social and spiritual aspects of the human experience,” said Smith, who loves her internal medicine practice.

“My primary goal in going to medical school was to use this knowledge in companionship with what I already knew, to serve people more fully and help free them from anxieties about their health where possible.”

Eleanor SmithSmith says she began medical school with three young children, unsure if it would turn into a career—but then knew quickly that she wanted to practice medicine. After more than a decade focused on health and medicine, she feels that her foundation as a rabbi gives her a unique perspective that is particularly helpful in primary care.

“As a rabbi, I was very focused on the social and spiritual lives of people—who they are as individuals, how they spend their days and what their primary influences are, including work, family, friends and partners,” said Smith. “In medicine, the ‘social history’ of the patient’s life is often thought of as secondary, but I believe it plays a central role in the overall health and wellness of a person and is an important part of my understanding of each patient.”

Smith has continued to attend Beth Emet since she stepped down as rabbi, and she is sometimes called by members to perform life cycle events for them. She recently returned from a trip to Poland where she toured concentration camps with a large group of American teenagers. She was along as trip doctor and rabbi, a particularly rich and meaningful combination of her roles. A number of members of the synagogue now come to her for medical care, which she finds especially rewarding.

Smith says many of the reasons she loves internal medicine are similar to things she loved in the rabbinate, particularly the privileges of the intimacy of the relationship that can develop with a patient. She also loves the potential for longevity when a patient is seen over a period of years. “The combination of intimacy, trust and longevity make for the most precious human bonds,” said Smith.

Another gratifying aspect of her practice is the opportunity to see more than one member of the same family, providing important insight and context that Smith says helps her understand each patient better. She has a number of couples as patients and feels that, because she sees both the husband and the wife, she has a better understanding of their relationship and the overall family system, which helps her provide more thoughtful and informed care.

“My goal is to care for the whole person, and my rabbinic background is the human foundation on which my practice is based,” said Smith. “I feel very lucky for the opportunities I have had.”

Learn more about Eleanor Smith, MD.

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