November 17th, 2017

Nov. 17, 2017 — Patients like Charleston Akins keep Dr. Latha Neerukonda going, and doctors like Neerukonda keep Akins coming.

Charleston Akins

Charleston Akins at home in Fort Worth

“I call myself a JPS poster child,” says Akins, who has received medical care somewhere else just once and only because he had to. A clinical trial in Dallas offered novel treatment. At the end of it, the hospital offered ongoing care, free of charge. Akins declined. “I said no, I want to go back to my hospital. I like JPS. They take really good care of me.”

“Poster child is about right,” said Chief Nursing Officer Wanda Peebles, who met Akins while having lunch off campus one day. He spied her JPS badge from across the room and couldn’t resist introducing himself to laud the care he receives at JPS. “It’s gratifying to meet people out in the community whose lives JPS has made better,” she said. “That’s what we’re here to do.”

Akins, 57, is a survivor. He tested positive for HIV in the 1980s, not long after the virus was first identified as the cause of AIDS, then considered a death sentence. Advances in treatment have extended life expectancy for people with HIV, but 30-year survivors of Akins’ era are rare.

He has been through cancer treatment twice, for two different lymphomas four years apart. The care he’s received has always allowed him to go back to work and remain active in his church, where he is a deacon. “I’ve always had two jobs,” he says.

Dr. Latha Neerukonda

Dr. Latha Neerukonda

Through it all has been Neerukonda, a fixture at the JPS Center for Cancer Care. Akins says she’s both “no nonsense” and infinitely compassionate. “I’ve seen her be tough.” To patients with cancer-causing habits, “she says, ‘There’s no reason for me to save your life while you’re busy trying to destroy it.’”

At the same time she is selfless with her time. “She is very thorough. Even when it’s just a routine visit, she wants to know everything and takes the time to listen to everything,” Akins says. She sometimes calls between appointments “just to see how I’m doing.”

Among the cancer center’s tens of thousands of patients are people who waited as long as they could to seek care, ill-equipped for the financial strain of serious illness. That makes cases complex — “astounding complexity,” an American College of Surgeons reviewer noted during the center’s last accreditation inspection.

Neerukonda says colleagues in the community sometimes ask, “’Why do you work so hard? Why do you stay?’ My patients keep me going,” she says. “My patients have taught me so many things. I learn a lot, and I give it back.” Akins was among her first.

Akins says he’ll keep coming. Recently diagnosed with cancer for the third time, he is currently undergoing chemotherapy.

Share this article!