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Jorge Prieto: physician that made a difference


Courtesy University of Notre Dame Press
Jorge Prieto. Harvest of Hope: The Pilgrimage of a Mexican-American Physician. Notre Dame, In.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989. Pp. 157. $20.95 (cloth).

Since time immemorial, physicians have been esteemed by the public. Lately, however, the public's image of physicians has slipped. People increasingly believe — justifiably or not —that physicians are not so dedicated to their patients as in years past.

In the face of this decline in the popular standing of physicians, Harvest of Hope reminds us that there still exist remarkable and skilled physicians who are dedicated to patient care above prestige or money. This book is the inspirational, well-written autobiography of 72-year-old Jorge Prieto, an exceptional family doctor, chairman of the Department of Family Practice at Cook County Hospital from 1974-1985 and president of the Chicago Board of Health from 1985-1987. For 40 years, Dr. Prieto, now retired, was a staunch advocate and provider of quality medical services for Chicago's poor Latino and black communities. His unwavering devotion has won him a legendary local reputation as "the poor people's doctor."

With refreshing wit, humor and modesty, Prieto chronicles his personal and professional development. It's a story of sadness and joy, hardship and success. Prieto was born in 1918, the oldest of eight children in his family. His father, Jorge Prieto Laurens, was elected governor of the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi in 1923. A year later, the political climate in Mexico changed and Prieto's family was exiled. Jorge Prieto experienced 10 years of impoverished childhood in Texas and California before his family was allowed to return to Mexico.

Intrigued by science as a youngster, Prieto wanted to become a medical doctor. But at 15 he contracted rheumatic fever and doctors thought he would be an invalid. He proved them wrong and made all-Mexico college quarterback in 1940. Other debilitating illnesses, like arthritis I and congestive heart failure, later struck him. He valiantly struggled all his life to overcome them. Ironically, as Prieto writes of himself. "The future doctor became a lifelong patient."

Prieto completed a year as a pre-med student at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. His family couldn't afford to continue his medical education in the United States, however, so Prieto returned to Mexico and in 1949 earned his degree as physician and surgeon from Universidad Nacional de Mexico. He spent nine months as the only doctor serving four remote, desperately poor villages in northern Mexico. The young doctor made house calls in his old, two-wheel, mule-drawn wagon; he delivered babies and helped families overcome serious illnesses like tuberculosis. Daily he saw children needlessly dying from sicknesses due mainly to malnutrition and poverty. This angered him and sparked his lifelong compassion for the disadvantaged.

A deeply religious Roman Catholic, Prieto came to Chicago in 1950 to serve the medical needs of braccros — migrant Mexican farm laborers brought to this country. With help from Roman Catholic priests, he set up a private practice in an old wooden convent building near Maxwell Street. There, he spent 20 years providing good medical care to poor Mexi

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can and black families. He treated them for low fees, often regardless of their ability to pay.

Prieto felt compelled by a keen sense of justice to serve for many years as physician to the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee. He also marched with Cesar Chavez in California in 1966 and participated in the civil rights movement in the '60s.

It was Prieto's social consciousness and the enormous respect he had earned as a doctor that influenced a committee at Cook County Hospital to select him as chairman of its family practice department. In his account of this phase of his career Prieto doesn't boast, but it is widely recognized that he took the small, unrespected department and transformed it into one of the most highly regarded units at the hospital.

He traveled around the country and recruited talented young doctors — many of them minorities and women — for residency in his department. He trained and inspired them to work, upon graduation, in low-income, medically underserved communities and cities.

Equally important, he established a superb family practice clinic — staffed by doctors from his department — and a second clinic (in conjunction with Chicago's Health Department) in Chicago's impoverished South Lawndale and Kenwood-Oakland communities. These clinics render first-rate, inexpensive medical care to thousands of Latino and black families annually. Given the recent closings of 11 hospitals on Chicago's south and west sides, the clinics provide crucial services for residents. For example, the clinics have undoubtedly lowered infant mortality in their areas — an urgent concern of Prieto's.

Prieto marvels at the progress of medicine, particularly its technological advances, during the last half century. He realizes that house calls belong to a bygone era. Yet he challenges today's doctors not to rely so much on technology and tests when helping patients, but rather to form more trusting personal relationships with them. And he reminds the medical profession not to neglect its obligation to the poor. He says, "[Cook County Hospital] was and still is the dumping ground where private hospitals throughout the city send their emergency room patients found to be penniless or without medical insurance."

Interestingly, Prieto's book fails to mention what he accomplished as president of the Chicago Board of Health. The late Mayor Harold Washington appointed him in 1985; Prieto resigned after the mayor's death in 1987. When city departments were asked to trim their budgets in 1986. Prieto pleaded with Washington that the poor needed the Health Department. As a result, it was one of the few departments spared such cuts that year.

But this is a minor omission. Overall, Prieto's book is a worthwhile contribution to the autobiographical genre. It is a moving, encouraging account of how one person's lifelong efforts to help humanity have, in fact, made a difference.

Wilfredo Cruz has a Ph.D. in social service administration from the University of Chicago. He is a former reporter for The Chicago Reporter and currently director of the Chicago Public Library's Office of Public Information.

July 1990/Illinois Issues/39

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