Getting to Know the Heart of Dr. Joshua Levin
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Mahatma Gandhi
By: Annice Moses, Council for Inclusion and Community Member
I googled Josh so when we met at Hometown to drink (his) French press decaf and (my) black tea, I would know what the guy looked like. The google search led me to his pediatric practice website and an impressive biography. Now I was nervous, braced for a big doctor ego. To my surprise, Josh was quite the opposite: modest, compassionate, contemplative, and incredibly down to earth, he was what my grandmother would dub, a mensch.
Josh grew up in Northbrook and his wife Laura grew up in Glencoe. After living in the city and bouncing around various suburbs a bit, Josh and Laura finally landed in Glencoe seven years ago. While Laura was returning to her roots, Josh was putting down new ones, and together they started raising three daughters - now 10, 7, and 4. Josh was drawn to Glencoe because he appreciates a small town with a community feel. As if on cue, within the first ten minutes of our interview we ran into his in-laws and then one of his patients, who at the urging of her mom shyly let “Dr. Josh” know it was her birthday.
Josh’s two oldest girls go to Solomon Schechter, while his youngest goes to the Montessori School in Glencoe. Laura went to Solomon Schechter as a kid and feels passionate about the curriculums core of kindness and compassion under the auspices of Judaism. I asked Josh if he was raised religiously. “No. I was the first one in my family to be Bar Mitzvahed. I asked to be Bar Mitzvahed. I don’t know if it was for the party or for the culture, but it was important to me. I had friends that were going to Hebrew school, and I wondered why I wasn’t. Reading Hebrew and reading from the Torah always felt like an important part of my being Jewish.”
What does Josh remember about his Bar Mitzvah? “It was in January 1991 and the Gulf war was raging. I remember part of my speech was talking about peace and the safe return of our soldiers. That moment in time was interesting – to be celebrating something in the middle of such a polarizing time.” Ten years later, Josh’s mom followed his lead and was Bat Mitzvahed in her 40s, which was deeply significant to them both.
Josh went to Glenbrook North for high school, undergraduate at Michigan and graduated medical school though Northwestern. He met Laura while he was in his residency, she was in medical school. Their first encounter at a bar wasn’t love at first sight. (But again, fret not, we already know it ends happily.) Mutual friends had suggested they meet, but when a chance encounter in a bar led Josh to approach Laura, she wasn’t feeling well and had no idea Josh was, well, the Josh. “I tried to make conversation, I tried to be personable.” Laura wasn’t having it. Josh left. Laura left. A week went by and then Laura messaged Josh, apologizing. “She said, ‘I didn’t know who you were at the time. I didn’t feel well. I’m so sorry.’” Soon after, Josh and Laura (formally) went on a date, ate sushi and went to a Bulls game. All good.
Five months later, Josh went to Tanzania. There was an arrangement between Josh’s residency program and a hospital in Mwanza. Every month, two residents were sent to Tanzania to help train local doctors about medical and pediatric care advances. Josh jumped at the opportunity. “Other cultures, customs and people have always interested me.” Housing was through the local church guest house and this was before TV’s and cell phones had arrived. It was a quiet life. “You’d go out the door, walk ten-minutes down a dusty road and there was the hospital. Hospitals are so different there. Here it’s so sterile and plastic feeling. There, it’s like being in a cafeteria at summer camp.” But the experience was also sobering. “I saw more kids die in a month then in my entire residency in Chicago. I saw what a country without access to vaccines looks like. It cemented for me how lucky we are to have them as a part of our routine healthcare in America. Developing countries without vaccines have kids dying left and right from meningitis.” Josh refers to that month as one of the most significant and profound experiences of his lifetime.
And what about Laura? Josh convinced his girlfriend of six months to fly to Tanzania. Their plan was to take a safari, do a little day hiking and lay on the beaches of Zanzibar. As they waited at their arranged hiking spot, they were confused. Everyone in their group was wearing serious hiking gear. And carrying massive backpacks. Josh and Laura were dressed in shorts, t-shirts, and gym shoes with granola bars stuffed in their pockets. “So, when we get back down from the mountain in two days…” Josh was like, “What?! What did he just say?” Laura continued to smile – clearly unaffected. Josh was so relieved! “Thanks for being so understanding...” He begins to explain he had no idea this was a two-night camping/mountain climbing extravaganza... “WHAT?!” Laura hadn’t heard a word the guide had said. They were in the middle of nowhere. They had to go with the group. And this is how Josh and Laura found themselves accidently hiking Mount Meru -- AKA “little Kili” (as in, Kilimanjaro!) -- where it was 90 degrees at the base, snow, and ice at the top. It was unbearably cold, they had no gear, were living off granola bar crumbs and leftovers, while one couple who had been training for weeks had brought their own private chef. Josh’s mantra became, “I can survive this. Laura has a smile on her face. We can do this.” And they did. A year and a half later, they honeymooned in Cambodia and Thailand.
Why pediatric medicine? Josh’s grandfather was a general practitioner who talked a lot about his job, taking tremendous pride in being available, reliable, trustworthy and helpful to his patients. His grandfather also talked his fair share about the human body, germs and what was happening inside of people. This piqued Josh’s natural curiosity around understanding how things work. Josh also gravitated to working with kids, being a camp counselor, tutor and coach. Combining the two seemed like a natural intersection of Josh’s interests and passions. Once he made the commitment to being a doctor, Josh knew he’d be dedicating his focus to pediatrics.
Josh works with a fair share of children in the LGBTQ+ community. I asked what he thought he was doing to draw this population to him and he to them. “Medical diagnosis is important, but the psychosocial component is especially important. So much of my learning has been independent and established in my practice outside of the walls of residency and medical school. I love the psychosocial piece. Maybe it’s the Judaism in me, but I am drawn to communities that are marginalized. I’m interested in how to best support people on their mental health journeys as opposed to curing an ailment -- which is what we primarily learned about in medical school. LGBTQ+ children are a population that may naturally feel an internal struggle. I didn’t grow up particularly exposed to the LGBTQ+ community, but I did have many family members and friends who struggled with their mental health.” With the parents of all his patients, Josh tries to help them see the bigger picture for their children. “Focus on your child’s happiness and emotional well-being. The rest will follow.”
Would Dr. Josh survive a Zombie apocalypse? “I’m not really a zombie person. I don’t watch, ‘The Walking Dead’-- that’s a zombie show, right? I wouldn’t survive. I’m assuming no one would.” (Really? But you survived Little “Kili”!)
And his celebrity crush? “I mean, if I’m being honest, Michael Jordan -- but I feel like it should be Gandhi.” It’s okay. Go with MJ. “His competitive nature and dedication were unmatched -- to be that passionate about anything, to be the best, that’s something we can all aspire to.”