Saying someone is a hero and a lifesaver, lauding their invaluable and extraordinary contributions to the world, can often be hyperbole. But in the case of Dr. Stephen Levin (Oct. 16, 1941- February 8, 2012) who fought for his patients’ lives as a physician and activist, and fought for change on both a cellular and a political level, it’s simply a statement of fact.
I first met Steve Levin at the New York City office of Kinderland, a progressive summer camp focused on social justice. I grew up going to Kinderland, and was there for my interview to be a Counselor in Training (CIT). Steve was there, waiting for his own daughter—who had never been to Kinderland—to finish her own CIT interview. In a way, Steve’s bringing his daughter Kate to that interview and that camp is a metaphor for what he did for so many people in his life; introducing them to interesting and important ideas, places and values. Steve brought his daughter to what turned out to be a healthy and happy place for her, just as he brought so many people, friends and patients to happier and healthier states. We started talking, and I liked him immediately; he was warm, engaged and engaging. He had a soothing, animated, deep voice and bright, sad brown eyes. He was excited and nervous about his daughter’s first time in camp and when she came out of the interview, his face lit up—Kate has this effect on him—and he enthusiastically introduced us, eager for his newbie daughter to meet an experienced Kinderlander. When they left I hoped and suspected that I’d see them again. And I did; Kate and I became CITs that summer and, more importantly, good friends. I was 15 when I met Steve. And that was 15 years ago. I’ve known Steve for half of my life.
Steve Levin was the Medical Director of the Mount Sinai Irving J. Selikoff Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine, a Professor of Occupational Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and the Co-Director of the World Trade Center Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program. What is occupational medicine, you may be asking. In a speech he delivered accepting an award for for his contributions to the field, Steve described occupational medicine as,
“work that combines clinical medicine, research, and advocacy for people who need the assistance of health professionals to obtain some measure of justice and health care for illnesses they suffer as a result of companies pursuing the biggest profits they can make, no matter what the effect on workers or the communities they operate in.”
But this was not the trajectory Steve always had in mind. Born and raised in Philadelphia to working class parents—his father a carpenter, his mother a hospital worker—and a graduate of Wesleyan University and the New York University School of Medicine, Steve planned to become a rich doctor, a heart surgeon to the stars.
When he received the Collegium Ramazzini’s Irving J. Selikoff Memorial Award, Steve attributed his transformation to his friendship with a member of the Young Lords (YLO), a Puerto Rican civil rights group, who exposed Steve to “the conditions some people in East Harlem had to live in. Frozen cascades of water from leaking pipes running down the stairs; old folks huddled under blankets for warmth in freezing apartments. I had never seen anything like this.” Steve started working with the Young Lords,”and it changed what