The smell of a kerosene heater gives Doc Watkins' office an old fashioned aroma, and given his location inside the sprawling Kenilworth Courts public housing complex a visitor could easily get the impression that the man will be cold throughout the winter.
But make no mistake about it: Theodore Watkins is a physician for all seasons.
"You may kiss me on my cheek," a heavyset woman said warmly as Watkins entered the waiting area of his three-cubicle office. She was a patient, one of thousands of residents of the Courts who rely on Watkins to treat ailments ranging from children's diseases to hypertension, depression and obesity.
Watkins gently kissed the woman, who then broke into a full fledged flush. "I may never wash that side of my face again," she crooned.
As a doctor, Watkins could be making a killing, financially speaking, if his office was in another part of town. Many doctors with his experience do. But just before Watkins finished his five-year residency in surgery at Howard University Hospital, he took a closer look at the medical needs of the Washington community and decided that preventive medicine was the way to go.
"I just felt that there was more to medicine than surgery," said Watkins, 40, who moved to Washington from Cleveland 13 years ago. "I enjoy surgery, but my belief is that there are things about the body, as wonderfully made as it is, that we can change if we really want to."
When Watkins set up an office in the Kenilworth Courts complex two years ago, he knew it would be tough. Attitudes about nutrition and exercise, the cornerstones of his preventive health program, seemed indelibly ingrained in the neighborhood. Most of his patients had a decided preference for sweets and fatty foods. Nobody liked to walk, let along jog.
So Watkins began making house calls.
"One patient would actually hide from me when I came around," Watkins recalled. "She'd tell whoever answered the door to tell me she wasn't home." Undaunted by the games and shenanigans, Watkins pressed ahead in his effort to inform the neighborhood about the rudiments of good health. He held seminars and workshops, and continued making home visits.
Nowadays, patients come strolling buoyantly by his office, sometimes to show off a newborn baby or just to see how he is doing. Unlike most doctor's offices, Doc Watkins clinic is often filled with laughter and jovial banter.
"Look at that big old baby," says Watkins' nurse, Rhonda Carthens, as a couple of proud new parents come in to show off their child. The woman had been seeing Watkins for prenatal advice and now she held in her arms a healthy, 2-month-old, 10-pound baby girl.
"You're feeding that baby too much," Carthens advised as she stared in amazement at the infant. "She's just nursing," the mother beamed proudly. "It's just good old, natural milk." The father blushed and Doc Watkins smiled at them both.
Watkins gets about 20 walk-in patients a day, and makes up to three house calls a night. His wife, Kay, an attorney, had served as his business manager, but now that his practice is on a roll, she is planning to open a law office of her own in the city.
The doctor's most memorable experience came not long ago after he had converted the 70-year-old woman who had hidden. She was out taking one of her daily mile-long walks. "Before I got out here, she couldn't even climb the stairs," Watkins said. "I asked her what did she like most about her new found good health and she said 'bending down to tie her shoes and raising her hand to comb her hair.' That made me feel good."
"I've wanted to be a doctor ever since I was 5 years old," Watkins said between treating patients. "I wanted to be of service and first thought about going to Africa. But then I came to believe that charity begins at home."