Vickroy: Mom blessed with extraordinary doctor
DONNA VICKROY firstname.lastname@example.org | (708) 633-5982 May 11, 2012 9:42PM
Dr. Sivaramaprasad Tummala at his office at the Burbank Medical Center in Burbank. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 14, 2012 8:03AM
If you’re going to be unlucky when it comes to health, you could use good fortune in the care department.
My mother first visited Dr. Sivaramaprasad Tummala in 1980, after her first heart attack.
Right from the start, she took a liking to the soft-spoken cardiologist. He was calm, nonjudgmental and patient. He would sit and explain everything again and again, if necessary.
She found the attention reassuring, comforting and unusual in the typically rushed world of doctors and nurses.
My mother belongs to the generation that treats doctors as if they are heaven-sent. An appointment is something to get dressed up for. It is a privilege that should be handled with respect and the best manners.
Lucky for her, and the others he treats, Tummala feels the same about his patients.
“There’s a new buzzword in medicine today — ‘patientcentric,’ ” Tummala said. “Putting the patient first. I’ve been practicing that all my life.”
His calling cards bear his home phone number. And he expects patients to use it.
Once he learned that a patient had struggled with breathing trouble for 12 hours before calling him.
“I asked him, ‘Why didn’t you call me?’ He said he didn’t want to bother me in the middle of the night on a Sunday,” Tummala said, shaking his head. “I encourage them to call me right away because things change over time and I don’t want them to suffer.”
It’s that genuine concern that endears so many to Tummala.
Many of his patients, including the father of his medical records staffer, Louise Hovel, have sworn they are his only patient, or at least his most important patient.
“Each one is my most important patient,” Tummala said, smiling broadly.
They are important enough for him to interrupt family visits to his native India with phone calls back to the states to check on them.
Though my mother frequently raved about Tummala, it wasn’t until she was hospitalized last year for several months that I got to see his unusual bedside manner firsthand. Over four months, my mom went from Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn to RML Rehab Center in Burr Ridge to Loyola Medical Center in Maywood and finally to Holy Cross Hospital on Chicago’s Southwest Side, battling an infection that put up a pretty good fight.
At each location, we’d see the familiar face of Tummala. Sometimes on a Sunday afternoon. Sometimes as late as 9 p.m. on a weeknight, when he’d stop on his way home after a full day of rounds and office visits. Each time, he was the same calm, patient and impeccably dressed caregiver.
“I’d say I work about 70 hours a week,” he said. “I used to work 80. Hopefully, next year I’ll cut down to 60.”
He is, after all, 65, with health concerns of his own.
“But I need to take time with my patients,” he said.
Almost all, about 95 percent, want to understand exactly what is happening.
“They are able to face whatever they have more boldly when they know what to expect,” he said. So he explains, slowly, carefully, often drawing pictures and making lists.
“If a patient takes time from their busy life to visit with me, by the time they walk out, they should clearly understand their problem and not go away with questions unanswered,” he said.
As a result, he forges more than just a doctor-patient relationship.
“My patients practically become my extended family and friends,” he said.
More than once, his wife has scolded him for putting his patients before his family. He sighs. Many times, he admits, she has been right.
Tummala was born in Ghantasala, India. The son of a farmer, he lost his mother when he was just 4.
He believes his first curiosity with medicine came when his little sister was born with congenital heart defects.
A bright child, he scored high enough on the entrance exams for the India secondary school system to be allowed to skip a grade, something he thinks is not always a wise thing for a child.
After attending The Hindu College, he went on to Rangaraya Medical College in Kakinada, India, where he met his wife. Kamala Tummala is a psychiatrist at Hines Veterans Hospital. The couple have two sons, Pramod, who lives in New York, and Paneel, who lives in Downers Grove.
Tummala came to the United States in 1970, spent a year in Rhode Island and then became a resident in internal medicine at Hines. In 1973, he added cardiology to his curriculum vitae. Two years later, he became one of the youngest members of the cardiology team at Loyola University’s Stritch School of Medicine.
In 1977, he and his mentor, Dr. Rimgaudas Nemickas, opened their practice near Holy Cross. Tummala has been serving the South Side and suburbs ever since, first at 61st Street and Kedzie Avenue, and now at the Burbank Medical Center near 79th Street and Cicero Avenue.
He typically begins his days at the office, then heads out to Christ, Little Company of Mary or Holy Cross — wherever his patients are being treated.
“I do a lot of driving,” he said, smiling.
I wanted to sit down with Tummala last year, to ask him why he goes the extra mile, especially when so many others do not. But then, miraculously, my mother recovered and the good doctor faded into my background.
Things seemed to be going swimmingly with my mom until March, when she started coughing up blood. She was hospitalized. Cancer was diagnosed.
Though this particular disease isn’t exactly in a cardiologist’s wheelhouse, there was Tummala, visiting her at Christ on a Sunday afternoon. She would reserve any questions she had for his visits, whether they fell under his realm of expertise or not. Because she trusted him.
For most of April, my mother had to be in a nursing home. The cancer had weakened her femur, and her oncologist feared she wouldn’t be able to negotiate the stairs to her second-floor condo while attending daily radiology sessions.
One Friday evening, after I’d signed in at the receptionist desk, I turned to see Tummala walking down the hall.
He’d come by to check on her. Sure, he went over her chart, chatted about medications and reminded her to eat. Then, as if he were her lifelong friend, he sat by her bedside, patted her hand and kissed her forehead. Did she understand everything? Did she have any questions?
“I’ve been seeing him for more than 30 years,” my mother said.
He treats her when she’s ill, comforts her when she’s worried, sometimes scolds her when she doesn’t get enough exercise.
And now, in a seemingly dark hour, he represents a ray of light.
“You must build up your strength,” he tells her. She needs to be able to withstand the rigors of chemotherapy.
“I’ll do my best,” she shrugs. “We’ll see what happens.”
“This is a fight for your life,” he tells her. She must approach it the way a warrior approaches battle.
The thing about cancer is this: No one really knows for certain why some people respond to treatment and others do not. There’s a good chance an individual’s outlook plays a part.
He makes a fist and sternly says, “You must be positive. You must be determined and optimistic.”
Then, either because he is her doctor or because he is her friend, she suddenly seems to believe him.
“Yes, OK,” she says. “I will.”
He says good night, turns to leave, pauses at the door, and says, “I will call you over the weekend to see how you are doing.”