Community mourns doctor’s passing
CALEXICO — The recent passing of Dr. Amalia Katsigeanis has stirred up a flood of memories among many longtime residents of Calexico, where she had served as councilwoman and mayor, practiced medicine and established the Valley’s first methadone clinic.
Dr. Katsi, as she was affectionately known, was 92 years old and had died of natural causes on Sunday.
“My sister was what you might call an overachiever,” said Olga K. Houlgate, of Carlsbad. “She did a lot in her lifetime.”
Katsigeanis’ seemingly inexorable ties to Calexico were established Oct. 11, 1925, when she was born atop the dining room table at the family’s home in the 700 block of Second Street.
As a child of the Great Depression, Katsigeanis had experienced poverty firsthand, and as a result she developed a charitable streak that was evident throughout her adult life, especially as a practicing physician. Evidently, it was Houlgate’s need to have her tonsils removed as a child and the family’s initial inability to pay for the procedure that had inspired Katsigeanis to want to become a doctor and help people in need.
“My sister never forgot,” Houlgate said. “When she had patients that couldn’t afford it, she wouldn’t charge them.”
Although Katsigeanis’ business and management style may have had its detractors — including, at one time, local and state officials — it also further endeared her to the community, many of whom simply referred to her as “la doctora.” A 1943 graduate of Brawley Union High School, Katsigeanis was also named her graduating class’ valedictorian, an honor that apparently did not sit very well with her, Houlgate said.
Katsigeanis’ senior year and graduation had coincided with the statewide internment of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans, including classmates with which she had regularly competed academically.
“Her competition had left,” Houlgate said. “She didn’t like becoming valedictorian by default. That’s the kind of person she was.”
Soon after, on her own merits and with the help of a scholarship, Katsigeanis was honored with membership into the Phi Beta Kappa honor society while a pre-medical student at the University of Southern California.
After having graduated from USC in three years, Katsigeanis enrolled at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Md., instead of attending Harvard Medical School, which had accepted her first.
In 1950, Katsigeanis obtained her medical degree and returned to California for an internship at the University of California, San Francisco children’s hospital, eventually continuing with her residency in surgery at New York’s Gouverneur and Bellevue hospitals.
She was a trailblazer. She was one of the pioneering women who opened doors for all other women doctors. Lupe Acuña, life partner
By 1955, Katsigeanis had returned to the Valley to open her private medical practice in El Centro. She relocated to Calexico the following year.
Katsigeanis’ return to the Valley came as something of a surprise to Houlgate, who had known her older sister to be a devoted patron of the arts while living in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York.
Considering the Valley’s lack of a comparable cultural arts scene, Houlgate told Katsigeanis that she would come to miss such amenities and predictably move away from the Valley within five years.
“She made a liar out of me,” Houlgate said.
Once back in the Valley, Katsigeanis quickly became known as the first woman doctor to open a private medical practice locally.
“She was a trailblazer,” said life partner Lupe Acuña. “She was one of the pioneering women who opened doors for all other women doctors.”
A former employee of Katsigeanis’ medical office, Acuña had also witnessed the doctor’s efforts to establish a methadone clinic in the city in response to an apparent spike in heroin usage and overdoses among local youth in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“She vowed she would do everything she could to help these kids,” said Acuña, who had also served as Katsigeanis’ caregiver following a stroke in 1998 and until her passing.
Part of that effort included lobbying to change a policy at Calexico Hospital, where Katsigeanis also was employed, that had mandated hospital personnel notify police of any over- dose before any treatment could be provided to patients.
Despite the bureaucratic challenges Katsigeanis had encountered, the non-profit Imperial Valley Methadone Clinic became a reality in 1974 with the assistance of the city of Calexico, Acuña said.
When the hospital was threatened with closure in the early and mid1990s, Katsigeanis also had helped campaign for a voter-approved halfcent sales tax increase that was intended to help keep the beleaguered hospital open.
In 1988, she was the first woman to be elected to the Calexico City Council, where she served two four-year terms and twice as mayor. Her motivation to run for a City Council seat was prompted largely in part by her desire to try to keep the hospital open.
“She was a force to be reckoned with,” Acuña said. “If she stood by your side, there was no way you could fail.”
Her public service and legacy has also been rec- ognized by city officials, who named a street after her. But on account of the difficulty they anticipated some may have with pronouncing her last name, the street was simply called “Dr. Amalia Street.”
Calexico resident Blanca Lopez said she was one of the many locals who had spent decades working alongside Katsigeanis and who appreciated the doctor’s tireless efforts and compassion. Prior to the establishment of the methadone clinic, Lopez had assisted Katsigeanis set up a 24-hour hotline to provide assistance for those struggling with drug addiction, she said
Aside from the hotline and clinic, Lopez said Katsigeanis had also established a recreation center for at-risk youth, where she also would regularly provide counseling.
“I’m sure there’s an awful lot of grateful people around,” Lopez said. “She will be missed by many.”
County Supervisor John Renison said he is one such grateful person.
As a third-grader, Renison had contracted diphtheria, pneumonia and typhoid all at once and required hospitalization. His highly contagious condition had also prompted some Calexico Hospital officials to recommend that he be transported immediately to a San Diego hospital.
Instead, Katsigeanis had argued that transporting Renison would likely kill him and was successfully able to place Renison with another isolated patient in a private room at the hospital.
“Obviously, I’m still here because of her,” Renison said.
Besides being a devoted patron of the arts who had amassed a considerable collection of art during her lifetime, Katsigeanis was also known for building model rockets and her love of fast cars.
Yet it was her love of literature and reading that had first gotten the attention of Hildy Carrillo, longtime colleague, friend and current Calexico Chamber of Commerce director.
Carrillo said she clearly remembers seeing Katsigeanis at the city’s various eateries dining alone while always reading a book or magazine.
As a result of those encounters, Carrillo said she had vowed as a youth that she would follow Katsigeanis’ example as an adult.
“You saw men do it all the time but you didn’t see women do it,” Carrillo said. “She is a big deal for us in Calexico.”
Services for Katsigeanis are scheduled for Wednesday at Our Lady Of Guadalupe Church in Calexico, starting with a viewing from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m., followed by a rosary from 9 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and a Mass immediately after. Following the Mass, a burial will take place at Mount View Cemetery in Calexico.
After obtaining her medical degree in 1950, Amalia Katsigeanis went on to complete her residency in New York at Gouverneur and Bellevue hospitals. PHOTO COURTESY OF LUPE ACUÑA
Eduardo Rivera (left) and John Renison (right) honor Amalia Katsigeanis in 1996 after she had served as Calexico’s mayor for the second time. PHOTO COURTESY OF LUPE ACUÑA
Amalia Katsigeanis during her residency in New York. PHOTO