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Dr. Jonathan Lewis, healer of victims of war, has died at 73

Psychiatrist Jonathan Lewis treated hundreds of political refugees to the United States who were victims of torture. | Provided photo

When Dr. Jonathan Lewis walked down Argyle Street, people poured out of restaurants and shops to greet him.

“Bac si! Bac si!” they called — Vietnamese for “doctor.”

“They would hug him, smile,” said Dr. Karlene Goodman, a fellow psychiatrist.

In Chicago’s Vietnamese refugee community, “Everybody knew him,” said Goodman. “If they weren’t seeing him, they had a family member who was seeing him.”

He helped people begin their recovery from state-sanctioned torture, rape, starvation and PTSD, those who knew him said.

Dr. Jonathan Lewis (center) had many friends in Chicago’s Vietnamese community. | Provided photo

“Dr. Lewis had helped them heal, had helped them feel safe, had helped them find a home in a foreign country,” said Thanh-Dieu Phan, a translator who worked with him and his clients.

Thuong Nguyen was one of them. A government official in South Vietnam, Nguyen was imprisoned for nine years after 1975’s fall of Saigon. At one time, “when I sleep, I nightmare,” he said.

At 75, he said, Dr. Lewis’ work lessened his bad dreams.

“I love him, I love him, I love him,” Nguyen said.

Dr. Lewis died June 5 after a stroke.

His Vietnamese patients sometimes teased him that his religion was “Jew-Bu,” thanks to a Jewish upbringing and interest in Buddhism, Phan said. Several of his post-traumatic stress disorder patients performed a Buddhist rite at his bedside before he died at Weiss Memorial Hospital, his stepson Daniel de Vise said.

Dr. Lewis volunteered at the Heartland Alliance Marjorie Kovler Center, a Rogers Park treatment facility for victims of political torture. He also did work for Asian Human Services, 4753 N. Broadway, according to Goodman, and counseled hundreds of refugees from Vietnam, Bosnia, Cambodia and African nations including Cameroon, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Togo, the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Some patients — children of Vietnamese women and American soldiers — were survivors of sexual slavery.

His clients often had little money to pay him. But he was delighted by their gifts: a piece of ripe jackfruit, say, or homemade spring rolls. Some were painters and sculptors, so his home began to fill with their art, said his cousin Lynn Coe.

Some longtime patients became good friends he’d invite to his Edgewater home, where he’d entertain by performing karaoke Elvis songs.

He grew up near 43rd and Drexel, the son of Lenny and Sybille Lewis, an actuary and child psychologist. His father’s long decline from multiple sclerosis might have contributed to his work, according to his friend Burt Weltman.

“He was such an empathetic person, and I think it had to do with his dad’s illness,” Weltman said.

After his family moved, he attended Evanston Township High School. He got his bachelor’s degree in social sciences from the University of Chicago and master’s in education from Roosevelt University. In 1974, he graduated from the UIC College of Medicine, according to his stepson. He pursued psychiatry because “he couldn’t stand blood,” Weltman said.

“He had a soft voice, kind,” said therapist Mary Lynn Everson, a director of the Kovler Center. “He also was very giving of his time. That’s very powerful, especially for people who’ve been tortured, because they’ve been told nobody will believe you and nobody cares.”

“He would have tears in his eyes every time we would sit down for a PTSD meeting,’’ Phan said.

One of his Vietnamese patients had been held prisoner for 15 years.

“The ones who got away suffered piracy, rape, some of them near-drowning,” said Goodman, who took over most of his practice after he retired. “Some were picked out of the sea by American warships.”

Others had survived the killing fields of Cambodia.

Dr. Lewis was always fascinated by other cultures, Coe said. Growing up, while visiting friends whose families were from other countries, he gravitated to the kitchen to see what they were cooking.

Dr. Jonathan Lewis and his wife Betty de Vise. | Provided photo

During a three-week trip to Thailand as a young man, “Jon ate everything,” Coe said.

Sometimes, he made her laugh so much that her sides got sore. With Borscht Belt timing, Dr. Lewis delivered rapid-fire jokes that usually started with, “A priest and a rabbi walk in to a bar,” or “A guy goes to the doctor. . . .”

He was tall and lanky and “had beautiful hands,” his cousin said, that he used to make jewelry and play the guitar and banjo.

Dr. Lewis is also survived by his wife Betty de Vise and two grandchildren. A memorial gathering is being planned.


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