Harold Fernandez: From undocumented to heart surgeon

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Heart surgeon Harold Fernandez.

The inspiring story of heart surgeon Harold Fernandez.

Harold Fernandez’s life could looks like one of the million of stories of immigrants in this country. His story is about perseverance, vision, dedication and a sense of dedication to the community.

His journey started in Colombia. After  his arrival in New York as an undocumented immigrant his life  made a dramatic turn that ultimately will take him to the best US colleges and become a heart surgeon in a highly strict, stressful and competitive environment.

“As we walked towards the plane, I could see my grandmothers crying, and waving us good-bye as best as they could. My brother and I were also crying. We could no longer hold back our emotions. I wondered as I entered the plane if I would ever see them again,” wrote Harold Fernandez about the moment he left his native Colombia to America to meet his parents.

From undocumented to heart surgeon

From undocumented to heart surgeon: First photo in New York of Dr. Fernandez, his mother is holding his younger brother Marlon and his brother Byron.”

A few days later, 13 year-old Harold and his younger brother Brandon embarked in a dangerous journey from the Bimini Islands to Florida in a small and fragile powerboat full of soon-to-be undocumented immigrants in America.

After a scary overnight travel, the boys arrived to Florida, where they meet relatives who arranged them to get safely to New York. There, Harold’s parents worked in a garment factory, barely making ends meet and leaving under the permanent fear of being caught by immigration authorities and deported.

Years later, Dr. Fernandez decided to write about it, including details of his personal life, in the book “Undocumented, My journey to Princeton and Harvard and Life as a Heart Surgeon.”

The 294 pages of the book pass by really fast thanks to Harold’s simple style in a narration full of vivid descriptions of his barrio, his family and friends, and his struggle to get to the top of the class in school.

“In 2005, you can hear in the news lots of stories portraying immigrants in a very negative way, perhaps because of 9/11, and most of those stories targeted Latinos,” said Harold Fernandez during a phone conversation with VOXXI. “I wanted to tell my story and explain that we come to this country to work and be part of this society.”

The narcos’s violence in Medellin

From undocumented to heart surgeon

Harold Fernandez, M.D. is a heart surgeon at Stony Brook University Medical Center.

Harold was born in Antioquia neighborhood, Medellin, Colombia in 1965. During his childhood he witnessed from a very close distance the violence brought in by the narcos, the violence that killed thousands of people in Colombia, many of then innocents, like some of Fernandez’s friends and relatives.

When he was a very young boy, Harold saw his father taking a plane to the USA, looking for a better future for the family. Later his mother will follow her husband, leaving her two children their two grandmothers, one of them very sick and whom Harold will never be able to see again.

From undocumented to heart surgeon

He remembers doctors and nurses coming to the house to care for his grandmother. “I was very young but then I tough that I would like to be a doctor and help sick people, save lives.”

Harold went a long way to fulfill his dreams. With great determination and discipline, he obtained scholarships to attend prestigious US colleges —nothing else but Princeton and Harvard!— and finally got into the small circle of heart surgeons trainees.

During several pages of his book, Harold takes us to the tough-disciplined environment of soon-to-be highly qualified surgeons, with long and stressful training hours.

Now, looking back, Harold feels pride of his achievement and reveals his “secret” over the phone: “I never claimed to be smarter than anybody else, but I worked very, very hard to get what I wanted.”

In his book, he tells us about his passion for soccer —remember, he comes from a Latin American barrio! —, how he studied for the tests, how he progressed on his English and, why not, how he fall in love with a sweetheart vecina (neighbor) during one of his trips to Medellin, after he received his residence papers. However, writing the book wasn’t an easy ride either for Harold. He had to research and make interviews, mainly with family members.

“It was an interesting experience, sometimes a painful one.” Said Harold. “I come from a town with a violent past, and to remember those who died was unbearable at certain point.”

After more than one version, he completed it by 2009, four years after he decided to tell his story. Finding a publisher was another difficult journey. “Some publishers were in bad financial shape because of the economy, but others didn’t like the issue I wrote about,” explains Harold. Finally the book went to presses late in 2012.

“I am pleased, particularly because some young people read it!” he concluded.

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