When Dr. Charles Li came to Chicago in 1974 after serving as a surgeon in Taiwan, he may not have imagined he’d wind up in practice in a small town along the Gulf Coast of Florida, from where he’s retiring 43 years later at 76.
But Dr. Li, a family practitioner, has found that “Crystal River is a good town to live in, and it’s growing. … I like the living style.”
Dr. Bhadresh Patel has purchased Li’s clinic along West Gulf-to-Lake Highway in Crystal River, and Dr. Jerome Carolino, a family practitioner, is the new doctor. Dr. Patel now owns four clinics — in Beverly Hills, Inverness, Floral City, and Crystal River — that are part of West Florida Medical Associates.
“Dr. Li has done a service to Crystal River for over 40 years, serving the nursing homes and the hospital,” Dr. Patel said. “He’s a very dedicated physician … and is very professional in his approach to taking care of patients,” according to Dr. Patel.
Dr. Li immigrated to Chicago, and after three years as a resident physician there, he moved to Florida. A friend in Ocala told him about “a good opportunity,” Li said, and urged him to apply when Seven Rivers Community Hospital opened in 1978. He did, and he’s been tending to the medical needs of Citrus County residents ever since.
His wife, Su-Jan, who was trained as a chemist and taught high school physics in Taiwan, helped run Li’s office.
“She’s a good person,” he said, smiling.
Li recalled when he first moved to Crystal River, “You could see fish. You could see the bay from Highway 19.”
As Crystal River grew up, Li worked to become a good counselor and friend to his patients.
Compared to other medical specialties, a family practice doctor, he has found, has “more patient interaction. We provide the frontline care.”
He said he also has gotten to know his patients’ family members.
“They bring their family, their grandchildren,” he said. “They come to see me and talk. They are happy to talk to me and hopeful. That’s family practice. … That’s what it means.”
Li carried this sense of camaraderie with him when he was named chief of staff at Seven Rivers Hospital, 22 years after joining the facility’s medical team.
As chief of staff, he found himself busy with meetings and paperwork. And he endeavored to make the hospital environment seem more professional.
For example, under his tenure, nurses wore white uniforms to distinguish them from other hospital staff. They previously had blended in with everyone else.
As if supervising the hospital employees didn’t keep him busy enough, Li also was medical director of three nursing homes. And he carved time out of his calendar to actively participate with Rotary of Crystal River, a group of which he’s been a member since 1991.
Avis Marie Craig, who joined Rotary four years after Dr. Li, said he is “really quite remarkable. Physicians often have a hard time meeting our attendance requirements, but he had 24 years of perfect attendance. That’s amazing for any Rotarian, but especially for a doctor.”
She said Li’s been named a Paul Harris Fellow three times. Fellows are honored for contributing at least $1,000 to the Rotary Foundation or other Rotary causes, and sometimes are honored for other activities.
Craig said she’s sat at Li’s table many times for the club’s weekly luncheons, and Li “is such a gentleman. I wish him the very best in his retirement.”
Amy Meek, past president of the Crystal River Rotary, said Li is “just a super person. He contributes his time, effort, and energy into our community in a very unassuming way.”
Meek said Li and his wife frequently attend the Rotary’s community events, including meal-packing and “Save Our Waters” efforts.
“He and his wife are not afraid to get out and get down to work,” she said.
Li and his wife raised two sons: Jonathan, now a cardiologist in Las Vegas, and Michael, an orthodontist in San Francisco. Jonathan has two sons.
Jonathan and Michael both attended the University of Chicago. Jonathan also trained at Tufts University and Michael at Columbia University.
Li is proud of his sons and proud they easily could transition from childhoods in Crystal River to practices in big cities.
Like many doctors, Li laments the transformation of medicine from the old-fashioned caring and personal relationships between a doctor and his patients into big business.
“Everything is money now,” he said. “Money talks.”
Many people receive care through HMOs, and the quality of care they receive may not always be the best, according to Li.
Meanwhile, Medicare keeps close tabs on doctors, “watching that you don’t do this and that. And patient relations suffer,” Li said.
Nevertheless, medical care in places like Taiwan, Canada, Japan, or England, where a more socialized form of medicine is provided, also has problems, according to Li.
He told of one person who had lung cancer and was 40. He was seeking treatment in Canada “but they were going to send him home.”
However, others told him, “Come to the U.S. We can treat you,” Li said.
Asked how the United States can improve its medical system, Li shrugged and indicated the problem is bigger than any one person can solve.
“I don’t know,” he said.
Similarly, he has no sure prescriptions for how the United States should be handling COVID.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s all about politics and economics.”
Nonetheless, he said COVID needs to be controlled “over the whole wide world.”
For Li, COVID has made meetings less enjoyable. He’s not a fan of Zoom. COVID also has put a damper on travel, and Li is used to traveling to many countries around the globe.
Nevertheless, he said, when he returns home from his world jaunts, whether he lands in New York City, or Miami, or elsewhere, “You feel good. You feel freedom.”
When the customs officials ask if travelers have brought in any agricultural products and the travelers say, “No,” the officials “trust you,” Li said. “You can come back here and relax. … It’s a great country,” he said.
Li said he’s not quite sure what he will do in his retirement. He pointed out he’s retiring at the same time that longtime publisher of the Citrus County Chronicle Gerry Mulligan has retired.
Mulligan said in an email that Li “has been an incredible advocate for the health of his patients and the health of his community. He spends all day caring for his patients and then volunteers his time on the weekend to care for his community.”
Mulligan emphasized what fellow Rotarians said.
“Whenever the Rotary of Crystal River had an event or community service project going, Dr. Li and his wife were both out volunteering,” Mulligan wrote.
Whatever the future holds for Li, it’s inevitable he will stay active.
And he’s not ruling out the possibility of dropping in his office and seeing the people he formerly cared for.
“I would like to continue to mingle with my patients,” he said.