Helping Hand | Dr. Don Lee Bradke

    A retired physician volunteers his time and skills to treat needy patients

    Dr. Don Lee Bradke
    Photography by Vanessa Rogers

    After more than 50 years as a physician, Dr. Don Lee Bradke earned his place in the sun. He and his wife, Rheta, a registered nurse, retired to Naples in 2016 after leaving his last position as emergency room medical director of a critical access hospital in Indiana. But it wasn’t long before he was searching for a way to return to his medical roots as an internist.

    Bradke began his career in internal medicine and practiced in Oklahoma City and New Orleans before moving to Indiana. He transitioned to emergency care in his 50s, when he and his wife began raising a second family. After bringing up three children, they adopted eight more within six years, starting when he was 52 years old. “In internal medicine, I was on call seven days a week and at night,” Bradke says. “Changing to emergency care allowed me to work a 12- or 24-hour shift, and then I was off for two to three days.”

    Soon after they relocated to Naples, Rheta spotted an article in the local paper about the Senior Friendship Health Center, which provides medical and dental care to low-income people 50 years of age and older. With all their children grown and on their own, the Bradkes decided to check it out and joined as volunteers in January 2017.

    Bradke discovered that the state would pay for him to become licensed in Florida and also cover his medical malpractice insurance, so he began practicing internal medicine at the center. He and his wife, who works in reception and bookkeeping, volunteer at the same time for six to 12 hours a week.

    Working at the center has allowed Bradke to get to know his patients in a way that time-pressed doctors often can’t. “We are able to set our own schedules, so I can spend time with patients,” he says. “Most doctors spend 60 percent of their time looking at a computer screen and not looking at the patient. It doesn’t give the patient a good feeling.” He typically spends 45 minutes with new patients and 20 minutes in a follow-up visit. Both patient and doctor benefit from the increased face-to-face time. “When you’re pressed for time, you don’t make the same connection with a patient. I can look at the patients and talk to them. They feel more comfortable and reveal more.”

    Perhaps because of the more relaxed schedule, Bradke says patients at the center are generally more respectful when they come in for care. “I feel more likable,” he adds. “It’s a unique feeling.” The good feeling is not likely to go away anytime soon. “I still feel I have a brain and a responsibility to give back to medicine, and as long as I’m able, I’ll pursue it.” —J.M.

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