Even at a young age, Neela K. Patel, M.D., M.P.H., seemed destined to become a geriatrician.
There was the chronic bronchitis of her grandmother, Maniben, who would wait for her 20-year-old granddaughter to attend to her, because no one administered medicine or helped with the tasks of daily living quite like she did.
There was her mother’s dementia that set in at an early age, precipitated by epileptic seizures and a stroke. Parvathiben Patel wanted to spend her last days at home, a wish that Dr. Patel, then a resident physician, honored completely.
There was the leadership of her father, Govindbhai S. Patel, a businessman in Bangalore, India, who ran a factory that made spare parts for hand weaving. At meals with his workers, he sought their input on how to more efficiently meet the demands of their customers. He modeled process improvement and teamwork for all around him.
There were mentors such as the late James Kvale, M.D., and current mentors Robert Parker, M.D., and Carlos Roberto Jaén, M.D., Ph.D., all of the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the UT Health San Antonio. Blossoming under their guidance, Dr. Patel, medical director of the UT Health Physicians Senior Health Clinic, this year was appointed associate professor with tenure in family and community medicine and chief of the Division of Geriatrics and Palliative Care.
At UT Medicine Senior Health, Dr. Patel spoke from experience recently when she counseled a mother with dementia and her caregiver-daughter.
“From taking care of my own mom I was able to tell them, ‘I know what you’re going through,’” she said. “To the daughter I could say, ‘You will be tempted to treat her like a child, but she is not a child. She understands everything but is not able to express it, because that’s what goes wrong in dementia.’”
Led by Dr. Patel, the UT Medicine Senior Health clinicians make every decision, and perform every act, based on what will ultimately most help the patient.
This values-based care philosophy begins in the UT Medicine Senior Health Clinic and the adjacent Acute Care for the Elderly inpatient unit, but it doesn’t end there.
“We link them to community resources such as home health agencies or the Alzheimer’s Association, senior centers for exercise, admission to a hospital, or seeing a consultant at another facility,” she said. “We offer them a pharmacist in our clinic, and work with community social workers and psychologists. We do the right thing for them when they come to see us, and we think of what they need and what is the right thing for them once they return home.”
Leadership and the inner voice
Continual improvement is a Patel mantra that she learned from her father.
“My biggest role model, teacher, mentor, guru and guide is my dad,” she said. “Whatever leadership I learned, whatever I engage in that empowers the team, it comes to me from him. I don’t know any other way because this is all I’ve seen done.”
The night before he died in 1986, Govindbhai Patel told his young daughter: “No matter what, I will make sure you become a doctor.” Although he didn’t have the chance to live out that promise, his words never left her heart.
Dr. Patel earned her M.D. in 1992 in Bangalore, India. She received her M.P.H. in 2001 from the University of Northern Colorado in Greenley, Colorado, before moving to San Antonio to complete her internship and residency. Dr. Parker was the first attending physician she encountered on the inpatient service.
“When I looked at him, I felt like, even if I am only half as good as he is, I will be a good geriatrician,” she said.
Today she said she is fulfilling her calling with the encouragement of her husband, Dr. Sreedhara R. Akkihebbalu. And yoga is her union with her inner voice, she said.
“Inside your heart you know when you’re right and when you’re wrong,” she said. “You don’t need anybody to tell you that. And God is constantly having conversations with us; we just need to listen.”
The UT Medicine Senior Health Clinic and Acute Care for the Elderly (ACE) Unit, a patient-centered medical home, are located in Tower 1, CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Northwest, 2829 Babcock Road.