Monday, December 26, 2005

Fleeing Castro and Cuba, doctor built career in U.S.

Fleeing Castro and Cuba, doctor built career in U.S.
Impacto Hispano - A week long series
Monday, December 26, 2005

Growing up in Cuba, Joaquin H. Piedra dreamed of becoming physician to the president.
"It was a way to get into the presidential palace, a child's fantasy," he said.
Piedra could not have foreseen that a couple of decades later his principles would clash with those of Cuba's new president, Fidel Castro. He and his family would flee to the United States.
Born and raised in Havana, Piedra played basketball and baseball at De La Salle, a school he attended for 12 years.
" I was not too good at basketball," he recalled at his home in Chesterfield County, where he lives with his wife, Yolanda. "They said it was because my hands were not big enough to handle the ball."
Piedra trained those small hands at the University of Havana to practice medicine. Later, he became co-director of the Department of Gastroenterology at Hospital Clínico Quir?rgico.
Then in 1959, when Piedra was 30 and had three children, Castro took over.
Piedra didn't lose his job at the hospital, but he applied secretly for U.S. residency for his family.
"I had to either subscribe to the government's philosophy . . . or they had to kill me," he said.
The Piedras arrived in Miami in August 1960 to find that a doctor who had promised Piedra a job backed out because Piedra wasn't a U.S. citizen.
Through his wife's connections, he landed a job at a hospital in Fort Lauderdale, and within three months he found a better-paying position at a Georgia hospital.
Three years later, he was hired by St. Elizabeths Hospital, a mental hospital in Washington.
"I had a small office in my house [in Falls Church] to offer medical services to the Latino community," Piedra said.
That became a full-fledged private practice two years later -- in 1965. He maintained it until going to work for what is now the Department of Veterans Affairs.
That paved the way in 1985 for President Ronald Reagan to appoint Piedra to the Board of Veterans' Appeals.
"I didn't get to be the president's doctor," he said, smiling, "but the president appointed me to this nice job."
Piedra retired from the board in 1992 and moved to Richmond. He started volunteering in 1995 at Cross Over Ministry clinics, which serve many Hispanics. Piedra volunteers two days a week at the Nancy Gilliam Memorial Clinic on Broad Rock Road.
"This organization and the Hispanic community are in need of a bilingual doctor," he said, "especially in a specialty [gastroenterology] that requires good communication."

Contact staff writer Juan Antonio Lizama at (804) 649-6513 or!news&s=1045855934842

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