Com­mu­nity mourns doc­tor’s pass­ing

Imperial Valley Press - - FRONT PAGE - BY JULIO MO­RALES Staff Writer

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

COUR­TESY OF LUPE ACUÑA

Amalia Kat­sigea­nis dur­ing her res­i­dency in New York. PHOTO

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