By Petula Dvorak
Wednesday, December 31, 2008 3:18 PM
When "Big Buck," a convicted murderer several times over, began to shake and burn with that familiar, homicidal rage boiling within him, he asked the doctor performing a routine exam to leave, because he liked him and didn't want to kill him. As Carlton Irving Phelps, a father of four who moonlighted as a prison doctor, told this story to family and friends, he listened to Big Buck and slowly backed out of the exam room on that midnight shift two decades ago. Days later, when Phelps saw Buck again, he took his blood pressure and checked his temperature as if nothing had happened.
It wasn't fear that made Phelps once consider leaving his side gig treating prisoners. It was shame. One night in June 1995, a petty criminal downed a fistful of antidepressants chased with bluish, prison-issue shampoo -- his umpteenth suicide attempt. This one was successful. Phelps was the physician on duty that night at the maximum security facility at Lorton Correctional Complex, and in the hearings and reports that followed Alejandro McAllister's death, Phelps took the brunt of the blame. In a court report, his actions were called the worst things you could call a doctor -- "barbaric" and "callous." Phelps was suspended.
The doctor was mortified, and despondent. All the dues paid, the years spent in medical school, long shifts as a resident, the nights bonding with prisoners, caring for them for free when they got out -- had it all been for nothing?
Phelps, the African American son of a pipe fitter, had been known since high school as "Feet Phelps," for his size-13 sneakers, which he strode all the way to Virginia State University on a basketball scholarship. But he quit basketball to concentrate on his studies, which led him to medical school and then to Washington.
And in all those years in Washington, where Phelps treated thousands of patients in his small medical practice and helped raise four children, the people around him never quite figured out why he seemed so dedicated to treating criminals at Lorton and later at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast Washington. Some of them even made it to Phelps's September funeral, where they fought Tropical Storm Hanna's wind and rain to squeeze, drenched, into pews next to his children, church ladies, doctors and NBA stars to pay respects to the doctor who never gave up on them, just as he'd never given up on himself.
In 1960s Norfolk, the opportunities for a young black man were limited. Phelps saw many of his classmates drop out of school and tangle with the law, but he used those big, fast feet and his whip-smart brain to keep beating everyone on the court. He became the point guard on the Booker T. Washington High School state championship team the year he graduated, and that led to the scholarship, and eventually to an MD from Meharry Medical College in Nashville.
Phelps met fellow physician Edwin Chapman during his residency at Howard University Hospital, and they decided to open a practice together. Their office windows overlook the parking lot, broken concrete barriers and lanes of traffic along Benning Road in Southeast Washington. Patients squeezed past boxes of medical supplies in the hallways. The partners didn't want a fancy office. Their ethos was about helping their community. "We didn't want to run a practice merely to run a whole bunch of patients through. We wanted to get to know them," Chapman said. Every morning, Phelps would arrive in perfectly shined shoes and well-cut suits. And then the receptionists would cringe when ex-cons showed up, asking for Phelps.
"They would say, 'Dr. Phelps, Sugar Bear' -- or some other prisoner nickname -- 'is here to see you,' " said his oldest daughter, Carmen Phelps, the staff coordinator for congressional pages on Capitol Hill. And the rest of the staff would just roll their eyes.
In the small exam rooms, the doctor spent hours getting to know the patients, their problems, their family lives. Often, Phelps cried the hardest of anyone who attended their funerals, said his longtime nurse, Ellen Blount. When patient visits wound down around 3 p.m., Phelps would tell her, "I'm off to my real job," and race out the door to the prison.
"I just don't get it," Blount recalled thinking. "These guys should be million-dollar doctors, in clean places, clean offices, fancy places."
Occasionally, Phelps would come home with awful, uneven haircuts. " 'I got my hair cut with guys at maximum security,' he told us when we asked about his hair," said his son, Carlton Phelps Jr. Perhaps, his prison work was a result of survivor guilt, his son speculated. "I think he was guilty for making it out" -- of poverty, of a dead-end situation.
Chapman, who worked in a methadone clinic attending addicts in his spare time, said he saw how fulfilled Phelps was by his prison work, so he tried it, too. "Two days. I worked at D.C. Jail for two days, and that was it for me," he said. "I couldn't do anymore."
These were seriously troubled people, with calamitous problems, not just the routine aches and pains that can be the mainstay of family medicine. That was what drew Phelps to the prison work, the rawness of each case, theorized Richard Smith, a fellow medical officer at St. Elizabeths.
"It's not work that anybody can do," Smith said. "You have to treat and diagnose people who are mentally compromised. There's always the potential for violence. It takes a special person to develop the trust of these people, to be able to work with them every day."
Phelps's dedication to medicine inspired his second daughter, Kristyn Phelps, to become a doctor. But, she says, "I was struck at my father's funeral by all of the patients who came, even during a hurricane, to say goodbye to him and tell us how caring he was to them . . . And I realized that it was not the profession that made him great but that he was a great man."
Phelps would have had trouble believing that about himself. He had a hard time getting past what had happened at Lorton.
According to official reports, Phelps had checked the prisoner's vitals and ordered the staff to take McAllister to the hospital; then he went back to the conference room where he had been napping. But when the ambulance arrived, the emergency medical technicians refused to take McAllister because of his "special handling" status -- he had attacked a doctor in March, prompting his move to maximum security.
The autopsy showed that McAllister most likely died of asphyxiation, caused by a combination of the overdose of pills and the fact that he was left lying face down on the ground while in belly chains, leg irons and handcuffs. A report compiled by the court's special master investigating the troubled prison blamed Phelps, arguing that he should never have left the prisoner's side. The local doctors' union appealed the suspension, accusing the prison of making Phelps a scapegoat for a staff that didn't follow doctor's orders.
Smith, the St. Elizabeths doctor who also worked at Lorton with Phelps, and agrees with the doctors' union, said Phelps was devastated. "A physician's reputation is everything," he said.
When Phelps was in crisis, he went back to Norfolk for wisdom and counsel, said Bob Dandridge, an NBA hall-of-famer who grew up with Phelps and is the godfather of Phelps Jr. The doctor talked to Lelia Banks, his smart, no-nonsense niece back home. Phelps told her he wanted to go back to the prison but wasn't sure he should. A good practice, a nice house in the Virginia suburbs, four beautiful children -- why return to such a dark place, where every decision he made would make him vulnerable?
"I told him he should go back; it's what he loved doing. It's what we do -- we help people," Banks said. So he resumed his prison work, moving on to St. Elizabeths when Lorton shut down. There he treated his most famous patient, John Hinckley Jr., who shot President Reagan in 1981. Hinckley, Phelps told his children, "talked about cats a lot."
After a dozen years of grinding it out on the midnight shift, Phelps started getting sick last year. When the cancer began eating away at the doctor's body, the thugs, the gunmen, the criminally insane started getting concerned.
"The patients were asking about Dr. Phelps more than anyone else," Smith said.
Phelps ended his partnership with Chapman, knowing well his own prognosis. A podiatrist took over his office. A neon foot flashes in the office that for 26 years had sheltered Feet Phelps.
In August, Phelps weighed just 130 pounds. Dandridge said he noticed Phelps didn't want others to see him looking so sickly. He took extra care to have his increasingly baggy suits pressed, his shoes extra shiny, before driving to St. Elizabeths every day to make his rounds.
He was 60 when he died in September. The patients and doctors at St. Elizabeths insisted that his name stay on the staff roster.
Petula Dvorak is a staff writer for The Post's Metro section.