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Obituaries

Dr. Jorge Prieto; Pushed Care for Poor, Migrants

August 26, 2001|FRANK O. SOTOMAYOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dr. Jorge Prieto, a pioneer in delivering health services to the poor in the inner city and for migrant farm workers in rural areas, has died at 82.

He died Tuesday of heart failure in Evanston, Ill.

Prieto's philosophy of providing medical care influenced the career paths of scores of physicians now active across the country and abroad. One of those is Dr. Patrick Dowling, head of the department of family medicine at the UCLA Medical School.

"Dr. Prieto inspired and trained a generation of family physicians to work in underserved communities all over this country, Africa and Latin America," said Dowling, who was mentored by Prieto at Cook County Hospital in Chicago.

After receiving his medical education in Mexico, Prieto worked as a doctor in the isolated villages of Zacatecas state. In 1952, he began a medical practice in Chicago, treating a clientele largely of Latinos and other poor patients and making thousands of house calls.

In 1966, he joined Cesar Chavez and supporters of the United Farm Workers on their California march for a labor contract with grape growers. Later, he helped found the Illinois Migrant Council to provide rural medical care, and he assisted the UFW in its grape-boycott efforts in the Midwest.

"We always had a farm worker or two living with us," recalled daughter Luz Maria, one of the nine children of Prieto and his wife, Luz Maria Davila.

Prieto became director of community medicine at Cabrini Hospital in 1970 and was appointed chairman of the family practice department at Cook County Hospital in 1974.

Before accepting the latter position, as Prieto explained in his autobiography, "Harvest of Hope," he insisted that the main training center for residents "be placed out in the neighborhoods rather than at the hospital annex."

During his tenure at Cook County Hospital, clinics were established in predominantly Mexican and black neighborhoods.

President of Board of Health in Chicago

Said Dowling: "What he taught me was to set up clinics in communities of need, providing care there, and nurturing idealism in doctors to go on and work in these underserved areas."

Nationally and statewide, Dowling said, Prieto's work began to address what remains a problem--an oversupply of doctors but a shortage of generalists or primary care physicians, particularly in rural areas and urban core neighborhoods.

Chicago Mayor Harold Washington named Prieto president of the city's Board of Health in 1984. In that position, the physician again called for closer relationships between doctors and their communities.

Prieto was born in Mexico City, and his route to prominence included an unscheduled stop in Los Angeles when his father was forced into exile during the political turmoil of the late stages of the Mexican Revolution.

The family took refuge in Houston in 1923 and in Los Angeles from 1926 to 1933. After he saw Notre Dame's football team, then coached by the legendary Knute Rockne, defeat USC in 1930, Prieto's youthful dream became to play quarterback at the Indiana school.

A bout with rheumatic fever after the family's return to Mexico, however, threatened to make him an invalid and thwart that goal of becoming a football hero. He was able to overcome the illness and later excelled as a quarterback for his Mexico City prep school.

And, with a partial academic scholarship, he did enter Notre Dame in 1943. But his size--slender and 5-foot-9--precluded his playing for the football powerhouse. The more meaningful goal of becoming a doctor for the underserved presented itself when Prieto visited migrant labor camps in Michigan as a student.

He retained close ties with Notre Dame and in 1984 received an honorary doctorate from the Catholic university, an event he called one of his most cherished moments.

"It has been a long pilgrimage," Prieto concluded in "Harvest of Hope." "From the villages in the desert of Zacatecas to Chicago's Board of Health, it has been a mysterious, fruitful journey."

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