Jan 3, 2016

Dr. and Mrs. Prats Settle in Maryland

The first generation in the United States were Benito Humberto Prats and his wife Mariana Martínez, who took the name Mariana Martinez Prats on her Social Security card. They will be often referred to in this blog as members of Generation One. They first settled in a brown shingle-sided house on Arlington Road in Bethesda with their six children (Generation Two) in 1965. Their seventh child was born in 1971.(In the 1980s the house was converted to a commercial establishment. It was demolished August 1, 2019 to make way for an apartment building.)

Benito was a gastroenterologist in Cuba and on arrival promptly studied for and passed the tests for a Maryland license to practice medicine. He then did his doctor’s residency at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda and qualified for DC and Virginia licenses also. In 1966 he went to work for the DC Government at Glen Dale Hospital for the Chronically Ill in Prince George’s County Maryland. From there he transferred to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in Washington as a Medical Officer, and he finished his government career with the U.S. Veteran’s Administration where he was appointed to the Veterans Board of Appeals by President Jimmy Carter. He retired in 1983.

As soon as he had a medical license, he opened a part-time evening practice for general medicine catering to Maryland and DC’s growing Hispanic community, borrowing an office in Bethesda’s Medical Building on Wisconsin Avenue from another doctor that kept traditional day-time hours.  He would charge $15 for the office visit (raised in increments over the years to $25).

The family moved to a newly-built house on Ewing Drive in Bethesda in 1967. It was on a corner lot which qualified it to house a medical practice. With his children’s help and a Hechinger credit card, with a hammer and circular saw he built out a practice in the basement, put in a separate entrance for it, brought used medical furniture and equipment, and moved his evening practice to it in 1968. (This house is still there, at the northwest corner with Bradley Boulevard.)

Mariana was the receptionist, nurse, bookkeeper and bill collector. During the day she would answer the office line (we had multi-line key telephones throughout the house; I remember the phone bill: each red hold key was 24 cents per month; each lamp in each line button in each phone was 12 cents and when they burned out they sent a repairman in a repair truck out to replace it) to take appointment requests or to argue with Medicare about payments. Medicare had just been invented. In the evening she was at the receptionist window to greet patients, write out bills (using an ingenious manual system popular at the time with forms backed with stripes of carbon that you could move up and down on pins so that by pressing hard with a ball-point pen one entry would create three copies of the invoice and the ledger entry). 

Her invoicing and collections policy was simple: For those that did not pay that day, she would hand them an invoice and a return envelope as they left. A month later, if payment had not been received, she would mail the first carbon of the invoice. A month after that she would send the second carbon. On the fourth month she would write off the debt. After all, she would say, it is obvious they could not afford it — that and the fact that she was out of carbons. And still, most would bring the overdue payment with them at their next appointment.

Obviously they did not get rich from this medical practice. Benito’s retirement income was his government pension and some small IRAs (Individual Retirement Account savings plans) from payroll deductions.

They closed the practice in 1979 and Dr. Prats practiced part-time at the Free Clinic in Langley Park run by the Catholic Center for Hispanic Affairs. He continued his volunteer work at the Free Clinic until 2005. In his retirement he also put in volunteer time at Suburban Hospital as a Spanish-English patient translator.

Their third home in Maryland was on Mayfair Manor Drive in Rockville (he preferred its alternate post office name of North Bethesda), which they bought after he retired. They sold it in 2009 and moved to Ingleside King Farm on the Rockville side of  Shady Grove Road when it first opened.

Benito and/or Mariana were quietly involved in a number of causes, most concerning the Cuban and Hispanic community here in the United States. They ranged from abortion alternatives education with the Catholic Archdiocese in Washington, to the Agrupación Católica Universitaria, to the Spanish Catholic Center in Washington, to the distribution of videos and literature from Camagüey to the Cuban diaspora; and a number of other organizations.

Benito, a staunch Republican, and Mariana, a staunch Democrat, cancelled each other’s vote at most elections. They proudly voted at every election, national or local, and knew and did not hesitate to call or write their elected representatives to discuss issues they considered important.  

Benito died on February 24, 2013 at Ingleside King Farm. He was 94. Mariana died January 6, 2014 at Ingleside King Farm. She was 87. They are buried at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Aspen Hill, Maryland, next to her parents and uncle.

Mariana M. Prats and Benito H. Prats MD

For the Living Room
 or Reception (you could unplug
it from the wall)

Multi-line phone for the kitchen
For the Doctor's Office