After 40 years of compassionate care, beloved ‘Dr. K’ retires

Posted 4/5/19

SILER CITY — Dr. Nagasayana Rao Kothapalli, MD, was born in India, studied and practiced in Ireland and England, and then Cleveland, before joining the staff at Chatham Hospital in 1980, …

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After 40 years of compassionate care, beloved ‘Dr. K’ retires

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SILER CITY — Dr. Nagasayana Rao Kothapalli, MD, was born in India, studied and practiced in Ireland and England, and then Cleveland, before joining the staff at Chatham Hospital in 1980, establishing permanent roots in Siler City.

For the next 39 years, the surgeon affectionately known by many as “Dr. K” performed countless procedures at Chatham Hospital, helping many ailing folks feel better and along the way earning and maintaining the love and respect of hundreds of patients and colleagues before retiring in January.

A handful of those colleagues convened in a conference room at the hospital last Thursday morning — the occasion was National Doctors Day — to enjoy breakfast, talk shop and, more specifically, to celebrate Dr. Kothapalli’s distinguished career.

Gathered around a table were longtime local medical professionals Dr. Mark Zeringue and his wife, Elizabeth, Dr. James Schwankl, Dr. Byron Hoffman, Dr. Jim Davis and Dr. Andrew Hannapel, all of whom worked for many years alongside their recently-retired colleague. Their wide-ranging conversation over the next hour touched on many topics — from the changes in medicine they’ve observed during their careers to the value of a well-timed moment of humor in the Emergency Room — but the conversation frequently returned to Dr. K’s achievements, despite his attempts to humbly redirect.

“He’s technically a superb surgeon,” retired Dr. Zeringue said of his colleague. “If he said he could do something, it always turned out good.”

Employing a wide range of expertise, Dr. Kothapalli treated patients with an equally wide variety of needs, from hip fractures to urological problems.

“He stopped short of brain surgery,” joked Elizabeth Zeringue, a colleague of Dr. Kothapalli’s for many years.

He always, his colleagues agreed, did his job well.

Perhaps the connective thread linking all of his skills is what Dr. Kothapalli himself described as “the human factor.”

It’s something, he said, that is missing in much of the current-day approach to medicine. But remaining always mindful of the human element in the ER or the OR proved to be essential to Dr. Kothapalli’s enormously successful professional approach.

Patients were never merely a number.

“Look into the patient’s eyes,” Dr. Kothapalli said, “and you get the diagnosis.”

Elizabeth Zeringue calls it “compassion.”

Dr. Kothapalli was always mindful of the person behind the pain.

“Compassion was first,” she said, “but humor was also a good tool in Dr. K’s arsenal.”

She recalled one patient — this was many years ago in the old hospital building on Third Street — who’d come to the ER with a dislocated shoulder and a great deal of physical distress.

Entering the examining room, Elizabeth Zerangue recalled, Dr. K began to remove his shoes and announced to the pained patient that he would, on this occasion, be “practicing yoga.”

“This was just to put the patient at ease,” Elizabeth said.

Placing his stockinged foot at the proper position, and then tugging on the patient’s arm in just the right way, Dr. K’s “yoga” technique quickly righted the wronged shoulder and alleviated the patient’s suffering.

“The patient went from being in agony,” she said, “to immediately being so much better.”

Instances like that — and there were countless numbers of them; Dr. K long ago gave up trying to keep a tally of how many medical procedures he’s performed — not only brought relief to many patients but also established Dr. Kothapalli’s sterling reputation in Siler City.

Dr. Kothapalli is so well-respected and loved, many of his patients have referred to him — a surgeon, not a general practitioner — as “my doctor.”

His eventual path to Siler City began after he earned his MD in 1959, when he completed studies at Andhra Medical College in Andrha Pradesh, India. From the same school, he earned his MS (Surgeru) degree in 1965.

In the 70s, he worked in Ireland and England and, in 1976, accepted a position at Huron Road Hospital in Cleveland.

He eventually came to North Carolina, he said, because he’d had enough of Ohio’s colder climate.

In his native India — he was born in Machilipatnam — there are two temperatures, the surgeon joked: “hot and hottest.” He was accustomed to, and preferred, warm weather.

He found the “extreme weather” in Cleveland to be disagreeably cold.

“So I thought of coming South,” he said.

Chatham Hospital was seeking a surgeon at the time, having just lost a pair of them to retirement.

As Chatham Hospital’s first foreign-born surgical staffer, Dr. Kothapalli was advised, he recalled with amusement, to “shut up; don’t talk.”

“It was challenging,” he said, but “slowly people saw the work. It took two years to prove I could do the job.”

But “hard work and commitment to the work,” qualities he said are essential for any doctor, served him well in Siler City.

“You have to keep moving and leaning new things,” he said.

And there’s, of course, that human factor. “Not just treat the patient,” Dr. Kothapalli said, “counsel the patient. Be there. Be a counselor. That is key.”

His friend and Chatham Hospital colleague Dr. Jim Davis called Dr. Kothapalli a “special guy” who’s been able, as a surgeon, to address a “wide spectrum of problems; and he would do it well.”

Dr. Kothapalli “will be sorely missed” around the hallways and operating rooms of Chatham Hospital, Dr. Davis said.

Since retiring at the end of January, Dr. Kothapalli and his wife spent several weeks traveling, including a visit to India to see his family — he has seven brothers and two sisters. Though he enjoyed his travels, he was especially happy, he said, to return to “my good old Siler City.”

Aiming to keep his brain and body active in retirement, Dr. Kothapalli is an avid painter and he loves to swim.

He calls his swimming pool the “best investment I ever made.”

And he walks. “One mile a day,” he said. “That’s my simple goal.”

Of his painting, though he pleads that he’s “not an artist,” Dr. Kothapalli isn’t without skills in that arena, too. Taking up painting only a few years ago, Dr. Kothapalli isn’t completely new to artistic expression. Enders recalled that after a staff meeting several years ago, Dr. Kothapalli presented the hospital CEO with a Styrofoam cup on the side of which the surgeon had drawn Enders’ likeness. “And it looked like me,” Enders acknowledged.

Like others who know and have worked with Dr. Kothapalli, Edners also noted the surgeon’s professional versatility and skill.

“Everything he did he would do it well,” Enders said. “And people loved him. And that’s hard to find in a surgeon.”

Recognizing that there are many people who wish to express their appreciation for “Dr. K” and his work in the region, Chatham Hospital is planning a community reception for current and former patients to “come by and say hello” to the retired doctor, Enders said.

The reception for Dr. Kothapalli is planned from 5 - 6:30 p.m. on April 16, at the Chatham Hospital, 475 Progress Boulevard, Siler City.

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