An Old-Fashioned Kind of Doctor

Five years ago, an ambulance arrived at Doctor Esperanza Angeles’ office in Long Island City to pick up Joseph Mulqueen, the monsignor from St. Mary’s Church just down the block. Dr. Angeles, 75, said the clergyman was very confused and disoriented and needed to go to a hospital immediately. She said she left her office, got in her car and followed the ambulance to Mount Sinai Queens in Astoria. She wanted to be there when Mulqueen woke up.

“I said, ‘I know he loves coffee,'” she said in an interview last month. “He’s Irish, you know. He loves strong coffee.”

So when Mulqueen, now 84, awoke in his hospital bed, he found Dr. Angeles sitting next to him with a carton of coffee and a cinnamon Danish.

The gesture was typical for Dr. Angeles, who seems like a permanent fixture in the community for long-time residents of Long Island City. She is particularly close to her elderly patients. She helps them find hospice care. She writes them letters. She even does house calls for those that are homebound. Mulqueen describes her as “one of the last holdouts of the old-time family doctor.” And at a time where personalized, “old-time” services like house calls are no longer the norm, her practice is indeed a unique breed.

“I become friends with my patients,” she said. “I like helping people.”

“Even my friends wonder why I do it,” she added. “I just want to help.”

Originally from the Philippines, where she received her medical degree, Dr. Angeles came to Long Island City from Greenpoint on a gloomy Saturday in 1979. She’s worked out of the same office on 49th Avenue ever since.

Back then, Long Island City was industrial—many of her patients were factory workers and truck drivers who would come for physicals during their lunch breaks. The neighborhood has changed. Over 8,600 new residential units have appeared since 2006 with over 9,700 on the way, according to June 2015 numbers from the Long Island City Partnership. The development has attracted lots of younger faces. And many older, longtime residents have left the neighborhood to be with relatives who can provide round-the-clock care or to avoid increasing rent. Dr. Angeles has seen many of her longtime patients die or move away—she’s lost three elderly patients since December. But for those still in the area, Dr. Angeles provides comfort and constancy.

Her office, for example, feels like a home. It has one examination room attached to her private office, and the rest is a cozy waiting room and a reception area run by her only employee, Amy Franco. Dr. Angeles’ private office door is open during the day. Patients often walk in the front door without appointments, greeting her with a “hello Doctor,” as they enter. They all know her, and few feel the need to call in advance. She sits behind her desk, almost hidden by piles of paper records, her dark brown hair falling to the top of her shoulders. When it gets busy, she moves nimbly about the office.

Early on in her practice, Dr. Angeles didn’t participate in many insurance plans. “We just had no idea how to start a practice,” she says. Now, when a patient comes in with an insurance she can’t cover, she refers him or her to other doctors to protect them from paying out of pocket.

But many patients insist. So she’ll charge them $65 for an office visit, $32 less than what she normally makes from Medicare-covered appointments. For quick procedures, like blood tests or flu shots, she won’t charge anything. She says this is her natural instinct, a consequence of watching her father run his private practice in the Philippines. “If a patient could not pay, he didn’t force them to pay,” she said.

But her sensitivity to patients is most evident through her help with home care. She currently does house calls regularly for two bedridden patients. She arranges for laboratories to come to many of her patients’ houses for blood tests, and she works with visiting nurses to schedule services like physical therapy. “If they need a wheelchair, walker, I do that,” said Dr. Angeles. “I talk to the supplier.”

Josephine Contina, 93, is one of Dr. Angeles’ homebound patients. Her sister, Mary Padula, 88, takes care of Contina, who was unable to comment for this story, on a daily basis. Padula says that Dr. Angeles’ availability for house calls makes life easier. “Today, doctors don’t do that. They don’t make house calls and you would have to take [the patient] to the office,” she said.

Padula says that Dr. Angeles’s concern does not stop there. She also reaches out as a friend to Contina. “She’ll take the time to call her and ask her how she’s feeling, say hello to her,” Padula said.

“It makes you feel better when patients say, ‘oh she’s my doctor and my friend,’” Dr. Angeles said.

Even if house calls are rare these days, Dr. Angeles isn’t the only doctor in New York making them. Dr. Ronald Primas, a Manhattan-based doctor, shapes his practice around visiting patients. “A lot of doctors stopped doing it, but that was the only thing I knew,” Dr. Primas said.

According to Dr. Primas, house calls have made a comeback in many practices, largely because of technology. “It’s become more convenient to do because the amount of equipment that you can take has now become more compact and a lot smaller,” he said. Additionally, Dr. Primas says that a number of inexperienced doctors moonlight with house calls to learn on the job and make extra income.

But for Dr. Angeles’ patients in Long Island City, house calls are one of many reasons that her practice feels so comfortable. Mulqueen, the patient who woke up with the doctor at his side, still wanders into Dr. Angeles’ office the same way he did 13 years ago during his first week in the area.

“I draw from my own childhood experience that doctors were always available. I go back to my years in Brooklyn on the Marine Park section, and there were doctors on either corner. They had their practice in the place where they lived,” Mulqueen said. And while Dr. Angeles lives in College Point in Flushing, her accessibility reminds him of that childhood experience. “That’s what motivated me to choose Dr. Angeles,” said Mulqueen, who has since recovered from his 2010 hospital visit.

He still remains close to the doctor and recently nominated her as the guest of honor at St. Mary’s 150th anniversary ceremony this past September, an appreciation for her service to his many longtime and elderly parishioners. The committee unanimously approved.

On the bottom of the program from the mass, it read, “We Dedicate this Celebration To our Doctor Dr. Esperanza San Miguel Angeles.”