The backstory: How two Latino doctors made history together during the pandemic

Today we begin to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month with two remarkable immigrant stories.

ABC7 news reporter Luz Pena interviewed the Latino doctors who made history last December, becoming the first Bay Area doctors to get vaccinated. Now they're opening up about how their upbringing prepared them to help the Latino community during this pandemic.

It was 1962 and by then the US government had helped over 14,000 children flee from communist Cuba to Miami. Among this group was Antonio Gomez's mom.

"My mother arrived as part of a Peter Pan Immigration. Which was a group of kids who arrived without their parents. A lot of those parents put their kids in an airplane without any knowledge if they would see them again," said Dr. Antonio Gomez, Medical Director of Critical Care at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital.

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In the late 60's Dr. Gomez's dad fled Cuba and met his mom years later.

"My father was ordained as an Episcopalian priest in Cuba, and around the time he wanted to leave was the time when the government was doing away with organized religion and churches," said Gomez.

Dr. Gomez was born in Los Angeles. His parents sheltered him from the constant gunshots and neighborhood gangs, but he wasn't blind to his parent's financial struggles.

"There were times where you know, did we have enough food in the table? During a particular week or day... there were times when we faced that," said Dr. Gomez.

At home there were always three constants, love, faith and español.

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"My grandma was an educator in Cuba and she would always say 'No vamos a hablar en ingles. Vamos a hablar en castellaño. Which is Spanish. The formal way to say Spanish. The king's Spanish if you will," said Dr. Gomez.

On the other side of L.A, another Latino was also finding his way. Sergio Urcuyo, the son of Nicaraguan immigrants. He was raised by a single mom, his grandmother and aunt. All of them under one roof.

"We didn't have a lot. My family would scrape together to buy Christmas presents and that was it. We were never hungry, but there certainly wasn't a lot of wealth all over the place," said Dr. Urcuyo.

At an early age, Sergio had to grow up fast and become "el hombre de la casa" or the "man of the house."

"Even though my mom spoke English well enough, she had a thick accent and always relied on me to do any negotiating with anyone who was an American. That started when I was nine, ten years old. It was me talking to the people at the hardware store. Calling the phone company, calling the cable company, that was my role in the family," said Dr. Urcuyo.

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Different paths and struggles led them to one place. On December 15, 2020 Dr. Gomez and Dr. Urcuyo made history together. They became the first Bay Area doctors to get vaccinated.

Dr. Urcuyo and Dr. Gomez agreed to be the first not only for them, but for all the Latinos with COVID who died in their ICU's.

"The third surge that we had, and even this fourth surge that we are in right now, it took an emotional toll on everybody. It definitely took an emotional toll on me personally, seeing Latino after Latino come in to my ICU," said Dr. Gomez.

"That has been one of the big challenges for me personally during all of this. During the third wave, our ICU was filled with folks with Latino surnames. Unfortunately, it was a lot of those who were dying, were Latinos. It was a challenge for us in the care team just seeing our people die," said Dr. Urcuyo.

Along with the medical milestone came an opportunity to combat vaccine hesitancy among the Latino community.

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"My cousin who is a school teacher one of her good friends who I have known since I was 3 years old actually played the video from the interview that you did back in December to her class. A lot of her student class which 98% are Latino and a lot of them attributed that interview and that conversation to deciding that they were going to get it," said Dr. Urcuyo.

Luz Pena: "Was that the moment when you realized that your calling went beyond this hospital?

Dr. Urcuyo: "Yes, it was. The impact that I was able to have by just doing my job was a big deal for me at that time and hearing that I had an impact beyond what I do every day was very meaningful for me."

After all, their parents sacrifice and push from the grandparents to always speak Spanish at home paid off decades later when Spanish became a key tool to save lives in the middle of the pandemic.

"I think there is a level of understanding. Usually we don't just launch talking about COVID. We talk about where are you from? Where is your family from? How long have you been here? What did you have to do to get here? And then we share stories like that. A lot of it is about gaining trust," said Dr. Gomez.

Luz Pena: "Do you believe that your Latino last name is somewhat of a batch of trust?"

Dr. Urcuyo: "I do. In the Latino community we are always looking for people who can relate to us."


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