Albany, NY’s Pro Bono Doctor

Hometown Heroes, People
on December 16, 2007

There are clocks in Dr. Bob Paeglow’s office, but he isn’t watching them. He’s carefully examining a patient. Cong Nguyen, 50, has had lesions on his back for at least three years and they could be cancerous.

Nguyan’s medical history isn’t clear, and his English abilities are limited.

“Cong, do you have any allergies?” Paeglow asks, speaking slowly, clearly.

“No,” replies Nguyan, who then pauses. “I don’t know,” he says. “What it mean, allergies?” Performing a biopsy is risky, but ignoring the lesions could be even worse. Dr. Bob, as his patients and others call him, makes a choice to take a tissue sample of one of the lesions and send it to the laboratory.

Paeglow, 53, is doing exactly what he felt he was led to do in the late 1980s, when he left his career as a radiation technician at Albany Medical Center Hospital and entered medical school. It’s why he asked his wife, Leane, and their four children to move to one of the poorest neighborhoods of Albany, N.Y., and help him open the Koinonia Primary Health Care clinic in 2002. The clinic serves patients regardless of their ability to pay, and Dr. Bob, the only full-time doctor on the staff of 10, works for free.

Paeglow remembers the exact moment he made his life-changing decision. He was watching a TV documentary about a single mom struggling to raise her three kids on a low salary and no insurance. “I had this vision of myself as an old man, lying in a nursing home, full of regret that the world was no better because I was here,” he says. “And that shook me down to the core.” Paeglow was inspired to return to the Albany neighborhood of West Hill, where he was raised, to set up his clinic, borrowing money to purchase a downtown building. Leane, who works full-time at the clinic as a nurse, is the neighborhood association president. Both Paeglows see their clinic work as part of an even bigger project: to eventually open a community center and attract industry and better jobs for the West Hill residents, many of whom struggle to get by on minimum wage and public assistance. v The doctor’s work has drawn national attention. He received the Association of American Medical Colleges’ 2006 Humanism in Medicine Award, which attracted donations. But staying afloat is a struggle. Although he draws no salary, other staffers have to be paid. He and his family live a block away, in rent-free housing provided by a local church. Paeglow’s part-time teaching job at Albany Medical College also helps with expenses, as does Leane’s part-time work for the Neighborhood Health Advocate Program.

“Bob Paeglow’s dedication to his patients has been an inspiration to many students,” says Dr. Vincent Verdile, dean of Albany Medical College. “His passion for ensuring quality health care for everyone, coupled with his gentle manner, are qualities that make him an outstanding role model and mentor.”

Dr. Bob strives to inspire his patients to believe in themselves. “The way he goes about practicing medicine is body and soul,” says Ike Onyedika, 24, a medical student at the college who spent four weeks interning at the clinic. “He really does care about how things are going in your life.”

Maria Dowen of Schenect-ady, N.Y., first came to the clinic for a prenatal checkup seven years ago. She’s been a patient of Dr. Bob’s ever since. “He’s very personable,” Dowen says. “He spends time with us, goes over every detail.”

If patients wish, he often ends their visit with a prayer.

For Dr. Bob, it’s not just a job. It’s his mission.

“I was born with the ability to help people,” he says. “If I don’t fulfill that destiny, my life will be meaningless.”

Naomi Seldin is a writer in Albany, N.Y.