Volume 76, Number 48 | April 25 - May1, 2007

A special Villager supplement

Hospitals, Health & Volunteers

Villager photo by Lesley Sussman

Dr. Jose J. Rabelo in his examination room at Cabrini Medical Center’s Haven Plaza Family Practice clinic at 12th St. and Avenue C.

East Village doctor is still enjoying the journey

By Lesley Sussman 

For Dr. Jose J. Rabelo it all seems like a blink of an eye from the time in 1986 when, fresh out of medical school at the University of Puerto Rico, he arrived on the Lower East Side to begin work as an intern at Cabrini Medical Center’s Stuyvesant Polyclinic to now when he is about to celebrate his 21st year of tending to the neighborhood’s medically underserved.

While the tall, distinguished-looking physician, who specializes in endocrinology, readily agrees it has been a long road traveled, he is nonetheless grateful for every step along the way.

Caring for the poor, he says, has always been his goal ever since he was a young boy growing up in the small Puerto Rican town of Cayey where he witnessed the lack of adequate medical help for his townsfolk.

“I saw so much poverty in my hometown that I always liked working with and helping poor people,” he explained. “I remember that some of those people would spend hours or days sometimes just to get to see a doctor because there weren’t many doctors in my community. I always have that image in my mind.”

There were a couple of other reasons as well that pointed the 65-year-old physician to medical school after eight years of teaching graduate-level chemistry in Puerto Rico.

“My first-grade teacher always told me I should become a doctor to treat her,” he laughingly recalled. “She said she didn’t want to die until after I became a doctor. That influenced me to get into medicine.”

Another reason had to do with Rabelo’s own fragile health as a youngster.

“I was a very sick child with asthma,” he said. “So I was very familiar with doctors since age 5. I was an Army brat and sometimes I was hospitalized in the Army hospital in San Juan.”

When he wasn’t in a hospital bed, Rabelo recalls always helping out where he could at the hospital.

“Even when I was 8 years old they were giving me things to do,” he said. “When I was older I was weighing children and doing other tasks. I was more mature than kids my own age.”

It was a tendency that ran in the family, he noted.

“My mother wasn’t a nurse — she was a housewife. But I remember her always helping the sick and dying the best she could because the medical facilities for them were not there,” he said. “That also influenced me to become a doctor.”

Although his first love was chemistry and teaching, Rabelo says he finally decided to enter medical school and, at age 35, earned his degree from the University of Puerto Rico’s School of Medicine. Then, in 1986, upon finishing his fellowship in endocrinology, he found himself part of a New York City program that brought doctors from the island to work in poorer neighborhoods.

“I was thrilled to be here,” he recalled of his arrival in New York City. “I had always wanted to live in this city. I loved the diversity and I’m very much an international type of person. I love talking to foreign people and New York is very cosmopolitan. I also love music and art and New York City to me is the capital of the arts.”

Rabelo was eventually hired part time at Cabrini Medical Center’s now-closed Stuyvesant Polyclinic in part because of his special knowledge of diabetes, a disease that particularly affected the neighborhood’s large Hispanic population. Just one year later, that job went from a part-time to a full-time one when he was appointed the clinic’s new medical director.

Although Rabelo was pleased to be working in a neighborhood that “was filled with my countrymen,” he also remembers that the East Village back then was a “scary” neighborhood.

“It was a very dangerous place filled with gangs and drugs” he recalled. “But eventually I got to know the neighborhood and didn’t feel so threatened. I would walk around, go to the pharmacy, the barber, the gym, and got familiar with it.”

He acknowledges how much the Lower East Side has changed today, and believes it’s a positive change.

“It’s much different than it was 20 years ago,” he said. “Many of the poor have been displaced to housing projects in other boroughs and a lot of young professionals have moved in. Today it’s a very friendly and energetic community but still nicely mixed with many Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Anglos.”

Seated in his small examination room at Cabrini Medical Center’s Haven Plaza Family Practice clinic at 12th St. and Avenue C, where he was recently transferred after the hospital closed its E. Fourth St. clinic as part of an expected overall shutdown, Rabelo reflected on his 21 years of service to the neighborhood’s medically underserved.

“I’ve found it truly rewarding to be working with the poor over all these years,” he asserted. “This is where I feel that I can help the most. I’ve had many opportunities to open my own private practice on Park Ave. or Long Island or somewhere, but people — especially my people who suffer from diabetes three or more times than the Anglos — have always been in need of a physician like myself who works in a clinic and specializes in diabetes and endocrinology.”

Although the passing years have not made his practice less busy, he says he has become more relaxed about life.

“My spiritual life has improved, and with the little free time I have, I play the piano, listen to a lot of music, go to concerts, read a lot, and I’ve been working on perfecting my Italian and French,” he said.

“I’m also trying to learn some Mandarin because Chinatown keeps expanding in all directions,” he added. “Chinatown isn’t going to be just Mott St. and East Broadway anymore. I’m seeing more and more Chinese patients, and they feel very happy when you can at least say ‘hello’ and ‘how are you’ in their language.”

Rabelo says he has also become more open minded to patients who engage in so-called New Age medical modalities.

“What matters is that they believe in their treatments, like acupuncture and meditation,” he said. “I, myself, go to an acupuncturist once or twice a week and I find good results.”

If anything ails the doctor these days, it is worry about the proposed closing by Governor Spitzer of the Cabrini Medical Center on E. 19th St., which, he says, could mean the closing of this neighborhood clinic as well.

“I’m crossing my fingers and really hoping it won’t close, because the hospital attracts and serves thousands of people who come from all the boroughs — especially Downtown,” he said. “It’s a landmark in the community and it would really be a shame and very sad.

“I’m hoping that if it closes we can, at least, keep the outpatient clinics like this one open, because poor people who still live in the neighborhood need it,” he said. “I don’t want to see them having to run all over the place or have no place to go at all.”

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