James R. Drake, M.D.: Internist Practiced What He Preached: Happy Health Care | St. Louis Public Radio

James R. Drake, M.D.: Internist Practiced What He Preached: Happy Health Care

Sep 25, 2014

For the past 20 years, a clinic for St. Louisans who cannot afford basic health care quickly filled with patients every Saturday morning.

Dr. James R. Drake with students
Credit Provided by Saint Louis University School of Medicine

On many of those mornings, James R. Drake, M.D., a professor of internal medicine at Saint Louis University and a general internist, supervised medical, social work and physical therapy students at the nation’s only entirely student-run free health clinic.

Many SLU physicians volunteer a Saturday each year at the Health Resource Center; Dr. Drake would put in six or seven shifts. There was never a doubt when he was on duty at the north side clinic.

"I would always hear him and his students laughing,” said Talia Coney, a third-year medical school student.

Known for his booming laughter, Dr. Drake had spent his entire career at Saint Louis University. He died unexpectedly of a heart attack on Sunday, Sept. 21, at Des Peres Hospital in St. Louis. He had collapsed earlier at the home he’d bought many years ago to be close to the YMCA in Kirkwood. He was 68.

Funeral services for Dr. Drake are scheduled for Friday morning at Bopp Chapel in Kirkwood.

Coney said med students would clamor to work at the clinic with the doctor she deemed “amazing.”

"Sometimes as medical students you forget the reasons you started down this path,” Coney said. “Dr. Drake was a reminder of the passion that brought us into medicine."

The Calling

His father had been a physician, and Dr. Drake pursued their profession as if it were a calling.

The Drake family -- Zach, James, Kathy and Tyler
Credit Provided by the family

After joining the faculty in 1976, he spent all of his 38 years in medicine at Saint Louis University while practicing general and internal medicine.

He served for 15 years on SLU’s medical school admissions committee, helping to select each incoming class.

Once the critical decision of who to admit was made, Dr. Drake volunteered his time mentoring first-year students. He shared much more than medical knowledge with them.

"He was one of the first teachers medical students would meet who taught them how to talk to patients," said his fellow internist, Robert Heaney, M.D., senior associate dean for clinical affairs at the medical school. 

As more and more doctors became specialists, Dr. Drake chose to provide primary care to families. Among his “fiercely loyal” contingent of patients were residents, students and faculty members, said the partner with whom he had practiced for 30 years, Thomas Olsen, M.D., also professor of internal medicine.

Dr. Drake handled the division of general internal medicine’s call schedule – and his colleagues were always glad when he was the one to cover them.

"When Jim was on call, I trusted he would provide the best for my patients,” said Dr. Heaney. “You could rely on Jim for a great diagnosis and treatment plan. He was one of the most solid internists anyone would want to find.”

Open House

When a family friend established a Missouri chapter of Healing the Children (now World Pediatric Project), which brings children from other countries to the U.S. for medical treatment, Dr. Drake and his wife, Kathy Ryan, a former nurse, were the first to sign up as hosts.

“He read a lot of history,” said his wife, Kathy Ryan, “but there was never enough time. Most of his reading would be on vacation.”
Credit Provided by the family

It was her idea, Ryan said, but her husband needed no cajoling for anything concerning the welfare of children.

“He took right to it,” Ryan said.

After Harlenny, a 5-year-old girl from the Dominican Republic, had surgery in Miami to repair a rare congenital heart defect, she recuperated in Kirkwood with Dr. Drake and his family. They spoke with the now-teenager’s mother last month.

“It was fun to hear that she’s doing very well,” Ryan said. “Jim was thrilled.”

During the past decade, they assisted two other families. They took a mother and her 3-year-old son to the child’s appointments as well as on fun outings, following his heart surgery.  A 9-year-old girl who was here to receive a prosthetic after losing a leg to injury, lived with them as she practiced walking again.

Children weren’t his only vulnerability. He also enjoyed the constant companionship of canines, so it was entirely his idea to adopt Jester when the Australian Shepherd’s owner, a family friend, died about five years ago.

The Eccentric

James Richard Drake was born July 15, 1946, in St. Louis, the younger of Ruth Drake and Truman Drake, M.D.’s two sons. After graduating from Clayton High School, Dr. Drake earned a degree in chemistry in 1968 from Hobart College and his medical degree from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in 1972. He completed his residency in internal medicine at the University of Connecticut.

James Drake with his sons, Zach and Tyler, who is seated down a step
Credit Provided by the family

Dr. Drake loved to be in the out-of-doors, mountain hiking, backpacking or just communing with nature while turning the pages of a book about World War II. He was a member of Delta Chi Fraternity, who still had friends from his college days as well as from childhood. His family knew him to be a man of multiple and endearing eccentricities – like cereal for dessert each night, eaten from a frozen-bottom bowl.

He worked hard, said his wife, and he was committed to his students, his patients, his colleagues and his family.

In addition to his wife of 23 years, Kathleen Ryan, Dr. Drake’s survivors include two sons, Zachary Ryan of St. Louis and Tyler Drake, a student at the University of Missouri-Columbia , and his brother, Tom Drake (Laurie) of Mankato, Minn.

Visitation for Dr. Drake will be from 4 to 8 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 25, at Bopp Chapel, 10610 Manchester Road, in Kirkwood. Funeral services will be Friday at 11 a.m. at Bopp Chapel. Interment will be private.

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations would be appreciated to SouthSide Early Childhood Center, 2101 South Jefferson Ave., St. Louis, Mo. 63104, or the Animal Protection Association, 854 Goodman Street, Memphis, Tenn. 38111.