21 Dec A Tribute to Dr. Ralph Inabnit
**Story from the South Bend Tribune, written by Christian Sheckler
Brent Inabnit remembers telling his retirement-age father, Dr. Ralph Inabnit, to slow down.
The concept was foreign to “Dr. I.”
In his father’s prime, Brent said, the primary care physician worked at least 65 to 70 hours a week. Over the past three years, Inabnit finally cut back, but even in his mid-70s he kept seeing patients at his office at South Bend Clinic and making rounds to see patients at several nursing homes where he served as chief doctor.
“For him, cutting back significantly, at a minimum, is 30 hours a week, sometimes 40,” Brent said. “Being a doctor for him was not a job, it wasn’t five days a week, it was 24/7. It was in his blood.”
Inabnit kept visiting his patients at nursing homes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, suited up head-to-toe in protective gear.
“He said, ‘You should see me. I look like I have on a space suit,’” his daughter, Mindy Higginson, said, though she still worried.
Higginson said one of her father’s close friends, also a doctor, suggested he stop making his rounds.
“He said, ‘Nope, I need to do this.’”
Inabnit began to feel tired the weekend after Thanksgiving. That Monday, Nov. 30, he started having trouble breathing and tested positive for the coronavirus. He was hospitalized that Wednesday or Thursday, family said, and died just over a week later, on Dec. 11. He was 76.
With Inabnit’s death, his family said, they lost a loving husband, devoted father and doting grandfather who delighted in teaching hard work, making special memories and showering his children with gifts.
But the community also lost an old-school family doctor whose relentless drive was matched only by his seemingly boundless generosity and who, after building a small-town practice from the ground up in New Carlisle, achieved an almost mythic status among locals.
“He had a way of making you feel like you were the most important patient there ever was,” said Bart Curtis, the former head football coach at New Prairie High School. “He treated every person like it was the queen of England or the president of the United States.”
‘Legend of New Carlisle’
Ralph Emerson Inabnit Jr. was born March 14, 1944, in Brownsburg, a small town just west of Indianapolis. He grew up poor, according to his family, and dreamt of becoming a doctor.
He started his own homebuilding company, earned undergraduate and master’s degrees from Andrews University and worked as a pharmaceutical salesman. He was 32, with two young children, when he got into medical school.
“We sold everything we had, which wasn’t a lot, got in a U-Haul and went to Philly,” Brent said.
With his D.O. degree in hand, in the early 80s, he brought his family to South Bend and became the first osteopathic resident at Memorial Hospital. When it came time to decide where to practice medicine, he settled on New Carlisle, and stayed there for almost three decades.
Inabnit’s first office in New Carlisle was nothing but a tiny reception area and two exam rooms, Brent said.
He later built a larger office, where he saw patients dawn to dusk and sometimes ran hours behind, according to those who knew him, because he refused to turn anybody away and spent extra time chatting with patients about their lives and families.
Inabnit was an old-fashioned, jack-of-all-trades “country doctor,” Higginson said.
He stitched up wounds. He set broken bones. He delivered babies. He made house calls.
“He just became the legend of New Carlisle,” Higginson said. “Everybody knew my dad.”
Inabnit expected hard work from his staff. He dictated orders so fast his assistants could barely keep up. He even expected a lot from his patients, sometimes getting angry when they canceled appointments or good-naturedly scolding them for going too long between checkups. But he held himself to the same standards. It wasn’t uncommon for him to take calls from patients while at dinner, his family said.
“He loved it and he lived it,” Higginson said.
Soon after opening his office in New Carlisle, Inabnit began throwing an annual summer picnic that started as a modest cookout but grew to a bash that drew hundreds and featured live music, catered chicken and door prizes from area businesses. The picnic was ostensibly for Inabnit’s patients and their families, but everyone was welcome.
When Curtis took over as head football coach at New Prairie, he asked Inabnit to serve as team doctor. He said Inabnit, feeling he lacked expertise, read up on sports medicine and eventually traveled to all the team’s games. Anytime a player got hurt at practice, Inabnit dropped what he was doing and made time to look at the injury, said Curtis, a hall-of-fame coach who went on to lead successful programs at Mishawaka and Warsaw.
As a fan, the doctor brought the same energy that marked his work.
One of his granddaughters, Grace Inabnit, 21, recalled he would make such a ruckus at her basketball games, yelling and stomping, that her teammates at first wondered “who’s that old man in the bleachers.”
At New Prairie football games, Inabnit ran up and down the sidelines during plays and had to be restrained from charging onto the field after touchdowns.
After one big win, Curtis said, the doctor started handing out high-end cigars to the coaching staff, until Curtis reminded him they couldn’t light up the Macanudos at a high school event.
“I said, ‘Doc, put those away,’” Curtis recalled. “‘This is not the NFL.’”
Inabnit bought ankle braces for the football team, Curtis said, and when the year-end banquet neared, the doctor would whip out his personal checkbook to pay for the event, though he never wanted anybody else to know.
‘He was just a blast’
While pushing his family to work hard, Inabnit demonstrated lavish generosity.
When Higginson was in high school, she said, her father bought her a car but required her to earn it by working at his office. He held report-card conferences with his grandchildren, asking about their grades class-by-class and doling out both praise and suggestions for improvement, Brent said.
Every year, as summer waned, Inabnit would take all the grandchildren to Michigan City for back-to-school shopping. For birthdays and Christmas, he took each of his children and grandkids on a shopping spree at the mall.
Christmas and birthday trips ended with a visit to Starbucks, a tradition he called “tea and crumpets” because he was fond of nicknames and pet phrases.
“He was just a blast. Energetic and animated and funny and smart,” said Inabnit’s wife, Marybeth. “Just a dynamic, beautiful person.”
‘Love you more’
Higginson said her father only semi-retired when, in his later years, he stopped commuting from Granger to New Carlisle and instead began seeing patients at the main South Bend Clinic building.
A colleague at South Bend Clinic, Dr. Jim Harris, said Inabnit remained “one of the hardest-working doctors I’ve ever met.”
“He was so dedicated that, when his patients had surgery, he went to the operating room with them to see what happened,” Harris said. “That’s really unusual for a primary-care doctor.”
Harris said Inabnit had a special commitment to seniors. He started each day with rounds at nursing homes, typically not arriving at the office until well after 10 a.m.
Late in his career, Inabnit combined his construction experience and medical expertise to build five nursing homes in Granger, Mishawaka, Fort Wayne and Chesterton.
Inabnit held holiday parties at BellTower Health & Rehabilitation Center, in Granger, bringing in a piano player and mingling with residents.
“My dad brought electricity wherever he went,” Brent said. “He would walk into whichever nursing home it was, and you would just see people smile.”
He later sold all the nursing homes except for BellTower. But his dedication to older patients didn’t waver.
Inabnit’s loved ones don’t know exactly how he contracted the coronavirus. But some family members believe he was likely infected while seeing patients at the nursing homes.
Marybeth said he was seeing COVID-19 patients up until his own diagnosis. She said the couple dined out for Thanksgiving, but kept to themselves and went to a restaurant that had partitions separating tables.
Family members said Inabnit had no underlying conditions other than being 76. Marybeth said she thought he would survive the virus because he was so strong for his age. He was a “beast at the gym,” she said, and kept up with her even though she was a marathon runner and 13 years his junior.
But by the time Inabnit was admitted to Memorial Hospital, he had developed double pneumonia, with fluid filling both lungs, Higginson said.
The last time Higginson communicated with her father, over FaceTime, he couldn’t speak. He could only give her a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. She tried to encourage him, but had “such a pit in my stomach” after the call.
On the morning of Dec. 11, Brent texted his last three words to his father: “I love you.”
Inabnit replied with three words of his own: “Love you more.”
Dr. I’s heart stopped that afternoon.
Inabnit’s family has mixed feelings about the rounds he kept making. On one hand, his death seems like a profound injustice.
“The horrible thing is this man died alone,” Marybeth said. “This man who gave up so much for other people.”
But they know there’s nothing they could have said or done to persuade him to stop working.
“He’s a hero. He died doing what he loved,” Higginson said. “As much as it hurts, I know he was helping people to the very end. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.”