In Gene Bishop's desk is a stack of index cards — the kind doctors would fill out, one for each patient, in the hand-scribed days before electronic medical records. The cards date to the 1970s, the years of Bishop's residency.
Fifty years later, she could still tell the stories: “This patient had a brother who worked on the pier and invited me to come to the Feast of the Seven Fishes. That one needed a diuretic; I used to fill a syringe and bicycle to his house so he wouldn't have to go to the emergency room.”
Bishop died on March 6, 2020, at age 73. (Ed. Note: There was no obituary at the time, related to Pandemic issues.) She never intended to be a doctor; at Radcliffe, she majored in history. But a stint with the Boston Women's Health Book Collective and a role in starting a free clinic for women in then-working class Somerville made her think medicine could be a way to practice both justice and compassion.
“She really loved the nitty-gritty of people telling her what was happening with them,” says her husband, Andy Stone, of Mt. Airy. “She loved her patients as people. The thing that made her both a good doctor and an activist was compassion. She couldn't not feel others' pain.”
Bishop grew up on Long Island, the daughter of progressive parents who supported school desegregation and fair housing. In college, she immersed herself in the anti-war movement, in Students for a Democratic Society. After graduation, she wrote for the Old Mole, an underground newspaper in Boston.
“She wasn't the kid who always wanted to be a doctor,” says Sarah Bishop-Stone, her daughter. “It was feminism and class consciousness that led her to medical school. She saw that as a way to live her values.”
When she and Stone fell in love in 1974 — both were living temporarily in the home of mutual friends while he did his residency and she was on medical rotations — they eschewed any kind of religious or civil ceremony.
When Karen Kelly met Bishop, around that time, both women were doctors at the Medical College of Pennsylvania (MCP). “We were colleagues first, young mothers working for a guy who was a major sexist pig. Back then, there weren't that many female physicians. It was solidarity.”
For Bishop, the practice of medicine was always threaded with politics: the fight for women's reproductive care and the right to choose; the push for universal health care and a single-payer system. “I didn't share her activism, but I admired her energy to tackle problems that to someone like me, might seem insolvable,” Kelly says.
Bishop understood health care from both sides of the physician's desk. At 18, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma; radiation, then a promising new treatment, saved her life. But it also left her with a toxic legacy: three more bouts with cancer, including the lung cancer that ended her life.
“My story is a warning for medicine: Today's cures may be tomorrow's illnesses,” she wrote in a frank essay about her experience that was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer just weeks before her death. “Who am I now? Hodgkin's cure. Breast cancer cure. Treated heart disease, able to exercise. Untreatable lung cancer. Exercise very limited by shortness of breath. Survivor? Surviving every day, figuring out what that means.”
Family and friends tell stories of Bishop's characteristic bluntness, her refusal to be cowed by authority, her habit of making friends in the grocery line. They recall how relatives sneaked baby Sarah into Methodist Hospital, where Bishop had just had a hysterectomy, so Bishop could nurse her in defiance of hospital rules. They tell of her weekly “power talks” in the Wissahickon with longtime friend Judi Bernstein-Baker.
The friends traveled to Cuba together in 2018, Bernstein-Baker with an injured hip and Bishop recuperating from heart surgery, and unnerved their guide by clambering up a steep hill. Sarah Bishop-Stone recalls family trips to Washington, D.C., not to visit presidential monuments but to march for abortion rights or against nuclear arms. From her mother, she says, she learned activism and conscience and the value of enduring friendships.
Bishop loved to cook. She loved birthdays, especially the challenge of choosing just the right gift for someone. She retained a childlike delight in rainbows, fireworks and the trillium she photographed on her walks in the Wissahickon.
For years, Bishop served on the Acts of Caring committee for her congregation, Mishkan Shalom, helping congregants in need, whether because of a new baby or a death in the family, connect with others for rides to the doctor or meals delivered to the doorstep. She learned Spanish and took part in a weekly conversation group; when she became too weak to drive to the teacher's apartment, the group simply relocated to Bishop's house.
When Bernstein-Baker reads something about Covid-19's disproportionate impact on people of color, she wonders what her friend would say. “If she were here, we would go on a walk, and I could ask her.” Bishop was a brisk walker; as always, she would be three steps ahead.
Anndee Hochman is a Mt. Airy journalist and essayist whose articles have appeared in numerous major newspapers, magazines and websites.