Healthcare in a Border Community: Alumnus Carlos Gutierrez, MD, Fights for Children, Refugees in El Paso
El Paso Children’s Hospital started as a dream to bring high-quality specialty care to the region, since about 650 patients per year had to travel to other hospitals before its opening. Carlos Gutierrez, MD, a 1977 graduate of the University of Minnesota Medical School, championed the concept of opening El Paso, Texas’ first nonprofit children’s hospital at a time when there were only for-profit institutions.
“During my medical training at the U, I discovered how wonderful the facilities were at the Children’s Hospital, and I thought, ‘That’s something that El Paso doesn’t have,’” Dr. Gutierrez said. “I could see El Paso’s need, and I aimed to establish a children’s hospital there once I finished my training.”
After graduating from the U of M Medical School, Dr. Gutierrez went on to the University of Washington’s pediatric residency program in Seattle. When he completed residency in 1980, he returned to El Paso to enter private practice while working to establish a local children’s hospital.
“I thought I was going to get support from the whole community, but little did I know that the for-profit hospitals were not too keen on the idea,” he said. “It was a fight worth fighting.”
Improving Children’s Care in El Paso
Dr. Gutierrez started the work when he was 30 years old and was in his 60s when he saw the hospital’s doors open in 2012. Now, the 140-bed hospital has been able to recruit physicians that they wouldn’t have been able to before, including subspecialists in different fields.
“I take a lot of pride every time I go inside the El Paso Children’s Hospital,” Dr. Gutierrez said. “I see the residents, medical students and all the people dedicating their lives to caring for kids, and it’s just a great feeling. I never get tired of it.”
Dr. Gutierrez is particularly proud of the Southwest University Pediatric Blood and Cancer Center at El Paso Children’s Hospital, the only Children’s Oncology Group (COG) certified center within a 350-mile radius. As COG members, the center’s four board-certified pediatric hematology oncologists have access to care protocols used at top-tier cancer centers across the nation.
“Now, our patients don’t have to be sent out of town the way they were before,” Dr. Gutierrez said. “The children’s hospital has enabled us to keep our patients’ care local.”
The children’s hospital became a reality through a partnership with University Medical Center of El Paso, a nonprofit research and teaching hospital in the area. Medical students and residents from Texas Tech School of Medicine complete their pediatric training at the El Paso Children’s Hospital, forging a legacy of educating future generations of physicians.
“There are medical students from across the country who want to have the experience of training in a border community, and so they apply to rotations to spend four to six weeks at the children’s hospital,” Dr. Gutierrez said. “We’re excited to take on medical students and teach them what we have in a border community.”
Healthcare in a Border Community
Healthcare issues in El Paso, which borders Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, have been unique. In 2014, there was an influx of refugees seeking asylum in the U.S., many of whom were unaccompanied minors in need of medical attention after completing arduous, often dangerous journeys. Those fleeing Central American countries often lacked sufficient food, water, clothing and medical supplies throughout the weeks-long journey.
“That’s when I became very involved in the care of refugees – men, women and children,” Dr. Gutierrez said. “Five of us pediatricians got together to help coordinate the medical care for the refugees when they were released by the Border Patrol, and many of these people did need hospitalization. Together, we helped assemble a team of over 100 physicians and allied health professionals to fulfill our mission.”
Whether the refugees could be cared for in an urgent care setting or needed to be hospitalized, the work was done pro bono. While things eventually settled down, another influx of refugees occurred in 2019. Dr. Gutierrez and his team of five were again ready to step in and provide medical care as they had in the past, except this time, they were denied access to those crossing the border who were held in detention centers.
“Because of my deep involvement with the refugees, I received an invitation in early July 2019, from Congressman Elijah Cummings of the United States House Committee on Oversight and Reform to testify my experience of not being able to provide the proper medical care to the refugee population,” Dr. Gutierrez said.
During the 2014 influx, Dr. Gutierrez and his team didn’t lose a single life. When they weren’t allowed the same access in 2019, over two dozen individuals died while in immigration custody across the U.S.
“It was a scary situation, but I agreed to testify,” Dr. Gutierrez said. “I tried to tell it like it was – what we were trying to do to care for refugees, but were denied access to their care.”
Dr. Gutierrez testified to the United States House Committee on Oversight and Reform on July 10, 2019.
“Our feeling as doctors, and as a pediatrician especially, was that if we could get there as soon as they arrive at the centers, we could really make a difference and prevent a lot of catastrophes,” Dr. Gutierrez testified. “This is not a right or left wing issue. This is not a Democrat or Republican issue. This is a human being issue, and this is something that is so basic to our country. We need to take care of these individuals the way we would take care of our own children. They deserve the love and respect that every one of you receive.”
During his testimony, Dr. Gutierrez recalled seeing a two-year-old who had been released from one of the detention centers. When he took her vitals, he found that she had a 105-degree fever and was listless. He immediately called an ambulance, and she ended up having bilateral pneumonia. When Dr. Gutierrez talked with the child’s mother, he learned that she had asked for help, but there were no medical services available.
“Day in and day out, I see these patients and I ask, ‘Did you get any medical help there?’ In my experience, they either receive little or no medical care at all,” Dr. Gutierrez testified. “Ideally, I would love for you to allow us community access to those shelters. We could make a tremendous difference.”
Continuing the Work, Remembering the Start
While the issues associated with caring for these refugees are far from over, Dr. Gutierrez has had fewer emergency cases referred from detention centers. Now, these centers contract physicians to provide medical care, aiming to maintain a healthy, safe environment.
“I’m very proud of our group of doctors who did what they were supposed to do,” he said. “I’m very proud that I got my training from the University of Minnesota, which I will forever be grateful for. It has enabled me to take care of people from underserved communities.”
For his work providing medical care to refugees crossing the border, Dr. Gutierrez was named a Hispanic Health Leadership Honoree by the National Hispanic Medical Association. The El Paso Children’s Hospital also established the “Dr. Carlos Gutierrez Milagro Award'' in his honor.
While Dr. Gutierrez has spent his life dedicated to serving others, he’s also acutely aware of the importance of family. He and his wife, Martha, who are about to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, fondly remember their time in Minneapolis, where they had their first of three children. Dr. Gutierrez also cherishes his time spent at the University of Minnesota Medical School, where he learned the art of medicine and forged lifelong relationships, like the close bond with his mentor, Albert Sullivan, MD, former associate dean for admissions and student affairs at the Medical School.
“The education I got at the University of Minnesota was nothing short of fabulous,” Dr. Gutierrez said. “The people I was able to work with were legends, and because I was able to mingle with them and be taught by them, they guided me in the right direction. I just can’t say more good things about my experience at the University of Minnesota Medical School.”