Friends, neighbors praise Indiana doctor and kids killed in I-65 crash
BY JON SEIDEL, CARRIE NAPOLEON AND TERESA AUCH SCHULTZ Sun-Times Media April 15, 2014 12:24PM
Emergency personnel look into an SUV that ran into the back of a semitrailer late Monday, April 14, 2014, in which three people were killed. | Indiana State Police photo
Updated: May 17, 2014 6:27AM
Dr. Mallik Chaganti gave patients his cellphone number so they could reach him.
He’d see them after hours. In his home.
“Everyone” in the northwest Indiana city of Rensselaer knew where Chaganti lived, a former patient said. But now the community is reeling after Chaganti and two of his children died in a crash on I-65 in Jasper County Monday night.
Chaganti had just dropped his wife off at O’Hare International Airport where she planned to catch a flight to India to visit her sick father, his brother said.
A third child injured in the crash — believed to be the couple’s son — is expected to survive.
And now Ned Speicher, the superintendent of the local school district, said the community is turning its thoughts and prayers toward that boy.
“He and his mom need each other,” Speicher said.
Chaganti, 45, was driving a Toyota Sequoia south on I-65, three miles south of the Roselawn exit shortly before midnight when his SUV rear-ended a semi-trailer driven by Nikolay Kachur, 31, of Battle Ground, Wash., police said. Kachur, who was not injured, had slowed because another semi-trailer had crashed earlier and leaked nitric acid onto the road.
The surviving child was taken to Jasper Memorial Hospital, police said. The Jasper County coroner said the boy later was moved to Loyola Medical Center in Maywood, Ill. Authorities did not identify the children who were killed in the crash.
Rensselaer Central Middle School officials called the Chaganti children “tremendous,” well-liked students. One recently took first place in the local geography bee and was headed to Indianapolis to compete. Another was runner-up.
The children and their parents were active volunteers. Chaganti treated many local residents, including many school district faculty and staff, said Speicher.
“Our counselors have been busy all day,” he said.
Parents and students struggled with the loss.
“My heart has hurt all day,” said Tanja Coran, whose son Chrisjon is a patient of Chaganti’s and a classmate of his daughter. “He was a magnificent doctor.”
Coran was at RCMS to take her son out of school early, as many parents did. Chrisjon, who is in seventh grade, said much of his class was absent today and more left early as the day progressed.
“Everybody was upset,” he said.
Chaganti practiced at the Clinic of Family Medicine in Rensselaer. A message at the office said it was closed Tuesday because of an emergency.
Tim Schreeg, CEO at Jasper County Hospital, said Chaganti was on the hospital’s active medical staff and had joined in June 2002.
“(He was) just very supportive of the hospital,” Schreeg said. “He will be horribly missed.”
Dr. James Wakefield III, another family medicine practitioner who had worked with Chaganti, said Chaganti had served the community for more than a decade.
Anna Zimmer, who works in housekeeping at the clinic, said the entire family just two weeks ago returned from a trip to India.
“It’s hard for me to talk. It’s so difficult,” Zimmer said. “I couldn’t sleep all night.”
Zimmer described the doctor as a kind man who loved flowers and gardening.
“He was really, really a good family man” she said.
Neighbor Robert Russell recalled Chaganti as a good man and good doctor who would do anything for his friends or patients.
“Last week I was in the hospital. Even though he was not my doctor he stopped in to check on me,” Russell said.
Chaganti recently entered a charity dance contest featuring the city “celebrities” and claimed top prize.
“Most doctors are kind of aloof. He got involved,” Russell said.
The Chagantis were among the youngest residents in the neighborhood, which was originally created for the college’s professors and now mostly consists of retired educators and doctors.
The couple built their home, 7,000-square-foot multilevel brick structure, with a prayer room and details paying homage to their Hindu culture, including a brick inlay above the door that roughly translates to good luck, said neighbors John and Mary Lou Baumann. An empty play set, volleyball net and other youthful amenities filled the backyard.
The children often could be seen playing in their yard or riding their bikes on the circle driveway, neighbors said. Chaganti regularly came home to have lunch with his family.
“As a family, they were very tight-knit,” John Baumann said.
Lawana Walker, 25, grew up in Rensselaer where Chaganti was the family doctor. And even though Walker left Rensselaer four years ago and now lives in Georgia, she said her 3-year-old son has been to see Dr. Chaganti, too.
Once, after emergency room staff refused her father’s request to call Chaganti after hours, Chaganti gave her father his cellphone number in case it happened again.
He was the kind of doctor who would let patients visit him at his home if they weren’t feeling well at odd hours, she said.
He was the kind of doctor who once invited Walker and her father to his back deck to do tai chi.
And he was the kind of doctor she knew would be there if she needed him.
“I’ve never found a doctor like that,” Walker said.