This week in history: Dr. Jorge Prieto makes house calls

A prominent physician and advocate for Chicago’s Mexican American community, Prieto worked hard to make health care available to the city’s Spanish-speaking residents. He died Aug. 21, 2001.

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Dr. Jorge Prieto, Chairman of the Department of Family Practice at Cook County Hospital, poses for a photo in 1975.

Jorge Prieto M.D., Chairman of the Department of Family Practice at Cook County Hospital, poses for a photo on July 1, 1975.

From the Sun-Times archives.

As published in the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times:

Navigating the U.S. health care system can be complex and frustrating, but so many more hindrances exist for those immigrating to this country or facing language barriers.

As a Mexican immigrant himself, Dr. Jorge Prieto understood these struggles firsthand, and he dedicated his medical career in Chicago to providing excellent health care to his patients and advocating for them as a Cook County Hospital administrator. The doctor, who died this week on Aug. 21, 2001, changed how Cook County provided health care to immigrants and made it more accessible for all Chicagoans.

Born in Mexico City in 1918, Prieto began making house calls in Chicago’s immigrant communities in 1952, according to his 2001 obituary in the Chicago Sun-Times by Ana Mendieta. Two years later, he opened his own office at 1230 S. Newberry, then a neighborhood clinic near Columbus Hospital, where he’d interned, in 1968. Over the course of his career, the doctor made thousands of house calls, performing his very last one in 1997.

But his care didn’t stop at Chicago’s city borders. In 1966, the Catholic Interracial Council of Chicago sent him to California to administer medical aid for striking California grape pickers.

“He will work with strikers in their clinic at Delano, Calif., after participating in the last stages of their current 300-mile march to the state capitol of Sacramento,” the Chicago Daily News wrote on April 6, 1966. 

Two months later, the Daily News followed up as he recruited two nurses to join him. The recruitment gave Prieto a chance to describe what he’d seen in California, and he was “appalled, at the conditions in which most of [the strikers] live.” At the time, a clinic staffed by one nurse handled health concerns for hundreds of strikers.

Back in Chicago, Prieto continued to support labor actions. In 1975, Prieto, now chairman of the Department of Family Services at Cook County Hospital, risked his job to support the striking interns and resident doctors at the hospital, the Daily News wrote on Oct. 29. Dr. Quenten Young, head of the Department of Medicine, also joined in.

“The two criticized the Cook County Health and Hospitals Governing Commission, which runs County Hospital, for failure to include senior physicians in negotiations,” the paper explained.

The strike began after interns and resident doctors raised concerns over “shoddy patient care” at the hospital and faulty equipment that led to several patient deaths, the paper said. It started two days earlier, and patients were urged to go to three other nearby hospitals on the West Side, the paper said. At a press conference, Prieto told reporters that senior physicians tried to avert the strike last summer.

“We told them (members of management) there was going to be a strike,” he said. “That we could see it coming. And they said no, it won’t happen.”

That same year as the strike, Prieto also found time to open the South Lawndale Health Center, 2611 S. Lawndale, according to his 2001 obituary. In 1991, the clinic was renamed the Dr. Jorge Prieto Family Health Center in his honor.

In 1985, Mayor Harold Washington appointed him president of the Chicago Board of Health. He held the position until the mayor’s death in 1987.

Throughout his life, Prieto believed in “helping his patients, curing their pains, reaching their souls,” Mendieta wrote in his Sun-Times obit. His career came full circle in 1997, long after he’d formally retired, when he made his last house call. The patient had been the first he’d ever seen in 1952.

“Dr. Prieto taught us that we would achieve our own happiness by serving others,” Andrea Munoz, executive director of the Dr. Jorge Prieto Family Health Center, told her, “and that is what his life exemplified long before it was politically correct.”

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