by Anna Ferraro
He left his home and family in India to serve the medical needs of another nation and state. For decades, he worked beyond reasonable hours, and willingly vacated his bed at any time of night answer to visit any patient’s needs. He viewed his patients as his family and gave sacrificially to help them. He revamped the critical care systems and procedures of his local hospital and saved many lives through his skilled clinical intervention. And despite the recent disconnect between this man and a more industrialized medical system that overlooked his value as a caregiver, he now retires with a gracious spirit and congenial attitude towards the community that he has given himself to for almost four decades. Such is the legacy of Dr. Chandupatla Prabhakar, M.D., F.A.C.P.
One of eight children, Prabhakar came from a middle-class family in Southern India. Graduating from college in 1970, he completed three years of post-graduate studies in India before taking a medical proficiency exam in Malaysia. On June 11th, 1975, he left his Indian home and headed to the Mumbai airport to take on a new career and a new life – in America.
From the beginning, the journey was breathtaking. He shared with vivid detail the shock and fear of seeing the Air France 747 he was sitting in catch fire while speeding up on the runway to take off. He could, in fact, feel the heat of the flames next to him in his seat as he waited for his turn to exit the blazing aircraft. Sharing vivid details of the horrific memory, he said, “There were sky-high flames shooting upward as the plane broke into two pieces.” Thankfully, the passengers survived, including Prabhakar, clinging tightly to his portfolio of documents all the while. He shared, “I remember that experience like it was yesterday.” After two days of waiting in Mumbai, his journey recommenced, and he was once again, headed towards America.
Arriving in Brooklyn, New York, with just his briefcase, official documents and $100 cash in his pocket, Prabhaker was in for another surprise – two crooks on the dangerous New York streets. Chancing upon the young doctor, they held him at gunpoint, and demanded his wallet. When they had taken what they could from his wallet, and stolen his watch, they allowed him to go on his way. And so he did, but not without concern. Brooklyn was dangerous, and the work there was hard. When his wife, Aruna, and their young children joined him in Brooklyn, he soon realized that Brooklyn was no place to raise a family. His wife, too, was confronted by a thief on the streets. After having her golden wedding chain stolen, Aruna returned home with fright. This incident made them decide that it was time to move.
By 1977, the Prabhakar family had three children and were living off of an annual salary of around $11,000. Although a fellow doctor offered Prabhaker a lucrative salary in a different New York hospital, Prabhakar was feeling an increasing desire to work in cardiology and critical care. Most importantly, he wanted a place that he and his family could call home. A place where he could build life-long relationships with his patients. A place… like Jacksonville.
In 1978, Prabhakar applied for an opening in Jacksonville. He looked beyond the arduous interview process that welcomed him, and concluded, “I liked the town.” The hospital administrators who interviewed him offered him $970 to move from New York and refused to give any guarantees of job security. It was a paltry sum and a high risk for a family man, but Prabhaker accepted. On July 5th, 1978, Dr. Prabhakar opened his private practice in Jacksonville, IL, and his highly respected legacy in our community began. He shared, “The initial months were very stressful.” But through word of mouth, his reputation quickly spread as a clinician that gave undivided attention to his patients, and provided insightful care. Once his children began going to school, his wife joined him in his work, and together they became an incredible team. Prabhakar said, “She was very instrumental in building my practice.”
The years progressed, and the Prabhakar’s served their patients with fervor, saying, “We never turned a patient down. It did not matter time of day.” Their office staff grew to including several employees, who were all on the same mission – a mission that did not revolve around clocks, insurance companies, pay rates, or ratings – it was a mission of serving the patients in the times and ways that the patients needed to be served. And the Prabhakar’s themselves set the ultimate example in all this. Even if it was a busy day in the office, they knew that if they spoke with Aruna, their needs would be met. They would see the doctor – that day. Prabhakar said, “We always saw many more patients than were [written] on the schedule. I never complained. The patients were in need.”
From his early days in working with Passavant Area Hospital, Prabhakar affected positive change. One of his first and most significant local accomplishments involved improving the Intensive Care Unit at Passavant. When he arrived in 1978, he noticed that ICU patients that required ventilators were being shipped to Springfield for their treatment, as Passavant had no system for them. Despite being the “new kid on the block,” Prabhakar created a ventilator management system, and oversaw its implementation. Under his direction, local physicians gladly kept their patients local during their stays in the ICU.
And that was only the beginning. Among physicians, his skill and reputation spread extensively leading doctors to seek regularly consultation with him. He seemed a bit unassuming for all this – being slight, foreign, and speaking English as his second language. But patients and physicians alike realized that his skill surpassed all. Once, while introducing Dr. Prabhakar to a visiting physician from Springfield, Dr. Andras said (in his own words!), “When the shit hits the fan, he’s the man” – a comment that Prabhakar insisted be included, as he reminisced about it with a surprised chuckle, but obvious warmth.
There were other warm memories through the years, such as when Ken Bradbury asked him to participate in a Passavant Follies act where Bradbury was performing with his band. Prabhakar agreed to participate, and wrote Bradbury a note, saying, “I can stand on my head any time for you, Ken.” Bradbury wrote back, “I hope you are serious.” And he was. To the shock of his nurses, his colleagues, and the audience, Prabhakar showed up for the follies, and literally stood on his head for several consecutive minutes while the band played on. No joke.
Since Prabhakar was Bradbury’s doctor for almost four decades, Bradbury offered a few words, saying, “It’s great when your doctor also becomes your friend. ‘Doc Prab’ never watched the clock. People are more important to him than seeing the most patients in a day’s time. If he was ever to start asking me questions about my awful lifestyle I’d just stop and say, ‘How are your grandkids?’ and I could avoid his questions.” Once, when Bradbury was working with a young man from Springfield, whose father was an Indian doctor, Bradbury asked if he knew, “Doc Prab.” The young man assented enthusiastically, “Oh yes! Genius! A genius diagnostician!” Bradbury concluded smugly, “Made me feel even more confident.”
Apparently, the “genius diagnostician” reputation was a communal opinion. As his practice grew, Prabhakar hired on two additional physicians to work under him. These physicians eventually became critical care and pulmonary specialists under his instruction. Not bad. Nurses too, had tremendous confidence in his abilities, and said that they could “communicate to him without any fear.” In turn, Prabhakar spoke highly of his nurses, saying, “Some of those nurses I nicknamed ‘doctors’ because they were so knowledgeable. … It was a mutually good working relationship, and mutual confidence is what makes a difference in medicine.”
And if anyone made a difference, it was Prabhakar. He recalled a moving story of being contacted by the family of a lady who was dying in another city. Prabhakar accepted her case, and got her transferred to Passavant. After 10 days under his care, she returned home, and has enjoyed healthful, vibrant years of living to date. When she and her husband celebrated their 60th wedding, they insisted that Prabhakar join them, saying, “We would have never had this anniversary if not for you.” Sitting quietly in the back of the church as the ceremony and celebration took place, Prabhakar recounted with a surprised smile, “Their speech, it was like an advertisement for my medical practice.” At the end, the lady said, “The only man in my life other than my husband is Dr. Prabhakar.” And so it was.
Another time, Prabhakar learned that the family of a co-worker was making funeral arrangements for their grandfather, who was in his late eighties. When Prabhaker was invited to look at his case, he realized that the man was being treated for the wrong problem – leading to kidney failure. When Prabhaker intervened and changed his treatment approach, the man walked out of the hospital seven days later. The funeral plans were cancelled.
Through it all, his lovely wife Aruna was by his side. Prabhakar shares, “She put her heart into not only taking care of the family, but being successful and caring for me.” While her husband tended patients around the clock, she raised three children – taking them to and from school, making sure they made it to all their required functions, and managing the home. Prabhakar smiled gratefully, “She never ever complained that I was not there helping.”
When Aruna retired from managing the office over 11 years ago, Passavant Hospital took over Dr. Prabhakar’s private group practice. He shared, “Passavant has been very fair to me over the years, and we have a mutual respect for each other. Although they owned my business, they allowed me to run the practice in the ways I felt that were best for my patients.”
Four years after Passavant took over management Prabhakar’s office, Prabhakar requested that Dr. Babu Eladasari (M.D, F.A.C.P) join him in his practice. With over 25 years of clinical experience, Eladasari was highly qualified to assist Prabhakar. Despite political difficulties, Keith Bradbury, the chairman of the board at that time, was able to intervene. Thanks to his intervention (which Prabhakar applauds to this day!), Jacksonville enjoyed seven years of a powerful medical team – Prabhakar and Eladasari.
As he reflected on his work as a leading doctor in Passavant Internal Medicine Associates, Prabhakar stated, “I’m a clinician, not a physician.” He emphasized a difference, saying, “A clinician is a knowledgeable physician with great out-of-the-box thinking capacity that enables him or her to arrive at the correct diagnosis quickly and initiate prompt treatment.” He further explained, “True clinicians pay attention to more than just the disease – we look at the patient’s other concerns. We sit with them and listen to their story. … After thorough examination, we come up with a formulation. … We also take more time to explain to the family what the diagnosis and plan is. We support them in every aspect of the process. There has to be some attention to the additional time it takes. In current medical practice, unfortunately, it’s not there.” He summarized, “I trust my clinical judgment. That’s what helped me to succeed in my practice. You can read and learn about medicine, but working with patients is experience that has to come on its own.”
This lack of “clinical interaction” in other healthcare circles became increasingly apparent over the last few years. Prabhakar stated with sadness, “What I see more and more is that medicine is taking doctor and patient relationship away. The [hospitals and physicians], they look at numbers and they do not consider anything else.” He shared, “With those kinds of changes, it becomes more and more difficult for a private doctor to practice.”
As Prabhakar and worked towards transitioning into retirement, he had hopes that he could slowly transition his patients into the care of his highly qualified colleague, Dr. Eladasari, who had shared a practice with him for seven years. However, it was not to be.
Prabhakar was crushed as he watched Passavant changing over to Memorial Healthcare System, saying, “[Memorial] bases physicians on fair market value. … When they crunched the numbers, they came up with a low income offer for my colleague.” Not surprisingly, the insensitivity of the offer was difficult for the Prabhakar/Eladasari team to handle after all they had given to the system. Prabhakar shared, “They disregarded [Eladasari’s] clinical skills and his experience with patients. It was very hard. There were no thanks Eladasari’s years of hard work and sacrifice.” And so, for that, Prabhakar and Eladasari decided that it was time to move on. Beginning in September 2017, they will have both left Passavant, and the well-respected group, Passavant Internal Medicine Associates, will no longer exist.
Prabhakar’s office staff, which he regarded as his close family, cried literal tears, as the sad ending to his career became apparent. He would not get to say farewell to each of his patients as he had hoped. He would not get to hand over their care to his skilled colleague, as he had hoped. And the office staff that had learned to regard timeless, compassionate care would not necessarily be as valued in the corporate medical system of Memorial. With fondness, and in his soft-spoken way, Prabhakar graciously said, “I hope and pray that my employees will have reasonable and satisfactory jobs and services.”
Prabhakar shared, “I am not leaving because of the money.” So true, because Prabhakar would have offered to work without pay, if he could only be a part of transitioning his patients into his colleague’s care. Although Memorial assured Dr. Prabhakar that the care for his patients would be equaled in the new system, he wondered, if Memorial disregards relationships with its clinicians, how will they truly care for patients? Time will tell. But in the meantime, Prabhakar stepped away from his career graciously, saying, “In the end, I want to sincerely thank all my patients and patrons for trusting me for all these years. I regret that I am departing from the practice without having a satisfactory back-up plan for them.”
His final words were almost tear-stained, as he said, “Our patients were our family. We had a mutual love and affection that cannot be replaced with anything else.” He also reflected on his presence in the community over the years, saying, saying, “We have spent over half of our lives in this town. When we go on a vacation, we are eager to come home. With the number of friends we have in this community, we feel that we are blessed.” He offered deep thanks to certain members of his office staff that served him so well – including Kelly McFarland (“Doc”), Alicia Wood, Jennifer Stuart, Kara (receptionist), and nurse practitioner Sonnie Hoover.
He also extended thanks and affection to his friend Paul Findley that helped him stay in shape on the tennis court for decades. Prabhakar shared, “I was very fortunate to connect with him and was so privileged to be his doctor and also his close friend. I regarded him as a fatherly figure and learned so much from him.”
In closing, Prabhakar graciously offered his cell-phone number to former patients, saying, “They are welcome to call me for guidance. And I wish to express my gratitude to all my patients, [and] their families for their trust in me and their love and affection over the last 39 years.”
Dr. and Mrs. Chandupatla Prabhakar continue to reside in Jacksonville, where they enjoy being with their friends, and for the first time in decades, spending time with each other without being on call. In the coming days, they look forward to visiting their children and grandchildren more. While their three children are all respected doctors, Prabhakar expressed his pleasure that most of all, they are humble and sincere as they care for others. And at the end of the day, the Prabhakar’s greatest joy is their seven grandchildren, whose lives they hope to see develop in wholesome and lovely ways. Dr. Prabhakar can be reached via his cell at (217) 370-8117.