The journey of Huntington resident Dr. Harold Fernandez is not just unique but one of triumph through tribulation and struggle in achieving the epitome of the American dream. Yet, his story also encompasses the dreams and aspirations of many others seeking a better life.
Fernandez came to the United States as an undocumented immigrant and is now a professor of cardiothoracic surgery at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset.
He was born in Medellin, Colombia. When he was 13, Fernandez left Colombia with his younger brother and flew to the Bahamas. And after two weeks, they, along with several others hoping to make the United States their new home, arrived after seven tumultuous hours by boat in Florida on Oct. 13, 1978. From there, they took a plane to New York to meet his parents, who were already there waiting.
“Those 7 hours in the boat were very traumatic,” Fernandez recounts. “There was a point when we all thought we were going to die. Everyone was ill. Everyone was throwing up. Everyone was praying. And I remember at one point when the boat was going to sink, the image in my head was that of my mom…and begging God to see my mom one more time.”
Fernandez would not become a citizen until 1993, while at Harvard Medical School, approximately 15 years after his arrival. He has spoken before about the stress of living in the United States while undocumented and how that stress is heightened during any interaction that could involve the police.
Since he was under that stress for so long, we asked him: even after becoming a citizen, and after all these years later, does that fear ever leave?
He recalled a story of a running challenge he did, inspired by the former Navy Seal David Goggins, where participants run four miles every four hours up to a total of 48 miles. Starting at 8 in the evening, “one of things going through my mind…was if these local police here would see me running, maybe they would think it’s suspicious and they would stop me. It is something that goes through my mind. And I have shared it with my friends and for them it doesn’t even enter their minds.”
But does this sentiment derive more from his ethnic background or because of his personal experience?
“I think it’s both,” he answers. “I relate in terms of experience to the African American community. Sometimes it’s related to this idea that a little part of you almost feels like you don’t belong. “It’s been a constant part of my experience here in America.”
And this stress, he attributes to the fuel that made him work that much harder in school.
“That was the one thing I could control,” he said. “And that’s what I tell [undocumented] kids when I speak to them, particularly during the last presidency: you can’t control how the president is going to feel about you. You can’t control what politicians are going to do in terms of the law or what theyre going to come up with. The only thing you can control is whether you go to school or not, whether you get that book and study and read. That is under your control.”
From when he arrived in New York, until his ascent to practicing medicine, he had no role models or knew of doctors personally, no one who he could model himself after in pursuit of becoming a doctor. Instead it was something so simple: “the power of tiny little steps.”
It started with a job delivering the newspaper before school when he was a teenager. “The first thing that made me feel good about myself,” the doctor recalls.
He had been getting into trouble and was on the verge of being suspended from school. “I just wanted to do something positive,” Fernandez says. And after a year, he was awarded ‘newspaper carrier of the month’. With his name in the paper, his parents were so proud that they would stop random people on the street to show them.
“It was something simple, but it was something that made me realize the power of doing tiny little steps…and doing it well,” says Dr. Fernandez.
These same ‘little steps’” led to him joining the Boy Scouts and eventually becoming an Eagle Scout, and valedictorian of his high school. Essentially, the doctor became addicted to the success from these incremental achievements.
Since Dr. Fernandez became a United States citizen, he has watched the conversation around immigration ebb and flow, and change overtime. And in the year 2021, the topic of immigration is in no way spared from polarization in our public discourse.
“I do think the conversation around immigration has changed,” Dr. Fernandez says. “It has become very polarized. People are not thinking about a solution in the middle. I do recognize the fears of some of the people that are here already and they feel the country is changing, and changing in a negative way.”
“Often the human aspect is left out of the conversation,” the doctor continues. “I think if people were to change their mindset to one of acceptance and understanding that these people that are here, that are working in the kitchens, that are working in the farms, working in private houses, taking care of kids, taking care of yard work, are here just to work.”
His hometown back in Colombia was originally corrupted by becoming Medellin’s prostitution center. “That really had a big impact on the moral and social and economic fabric of the town,” he explains. “Things were beginning to change in Medellin for the worst.”
This was right in the center of the city. The industry went unregulated and was managed by drug cartels. To make matters worse, the city’s prostitution was only allowed in this particular part of the city, so it became an incubator for crime, corruption, and violence.
“As a kid growing up in that town,” the doctor explains, “the people that I saw that would make it in terms of being able to afford a house, being able to afford a car, were people that got involved in the drug trade.”
As time went on, “fights that might have been with knives were with guns,” the doctor continues, “not just regular guns, big guns,” referring to automatic weapons. All around, there were songs about prison and crime, glorifying the ganglife. His parents fled to America to escape that culture.
Dr. Fernandez feels that It is stories such as his that people often discount as to why people flee to America in the first place.
Undocumented immigrants are “not here to be criminals,” he said. “They’re people who have escaped horrible circumstances at home and are here just to be part of the American dream.”
Yet, despite today’s polarization surrounding immigration, “Americans in general are people who are compassionate,” the doctor firmly believes.
Expressing this sentiment however, the doctor goes on to explain, became particularly disheartening during Donald Trump’s presidency beginning with his presidential run.
In regards to Trump’s campaign announcement degrading particularly Mexicans but Latin Americans in general as “criminals” and “rapists”, Dr. Fernandez shares how “it was very hurtful because at the end of the day I still think even now that this is the most compassionate country in the world.”
Reflecting back on during his immigration process, “you could still trust in good people, whether they were Republicans or Democrats. It didn’t really matter.”
However, Trump “capitalized on the fears that people have that someone out there is coming to get them,” the doctor says. “But it didn’t start with him. It had been going on for several years before.”
Dr. Fernandez said that was this sentiment as one of the reasons he wrote his book in the first place back in 2005. His memoir is titled Undocumented: My Journey to Princeton and Harvard and Life as a Heart Surgeon.
“To find a solution,” the doctor advises, “you have to at least acknowledge that some people have fears about changes that they may not be comfortable with. But right now the conversations about immigration are very extreme.
“Immigration and diversity of thought, of opinion, of experiences make a place better, makes all of us stronger in many ways. I think that one of the reasons I was able to succeed [was because] I was very hungry in terms of wanting to do better. Diversity brings a different mindset to how people view problems and find better solutions.”