Dr. Hernando Garzon has responded to more than 20 international disasters in his nearly two-decade career, including the 9/11 World Trade Center collapse in New York City, the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He has also trained more than 700 doctors and 2,000 paramedics in providing relief to emergency victims.
He will be spending Thanksgiving in Cuzco, Peru to set up a program with volunteer medical staff in order to care for indigenous medically-underserved communities. After that, he will be traveling to the Philippines where a powerful typhoon hit on November 8. It displaced more than 4.4 million people and its aftermath is still affecting 13.2 million, according to government figures; and as of Tuesday, the storm had killed 4,011, injured 18,557 and 1,602 remain missing.
“I like the feeling that I can make a difference in people’s lives in a positive way,” says Dr. Garzon. “I think medicine is still a very unique and rarified profession. We get to be in people’s lives in a very special way.”
Born in Bogota, Colombia, Dr. Garzon immigrated to New York City at age four, with his father. Today, when he is not traveling, he is based in northern California where he coordinates physician volunteerism and community service as the director of Kaiser Permanente’s new Global Health Program.
“I always wanted to be a doctor as a kid,” he remembers. “When I was in medical school, I developed an interest in emergency medicine and disaster response.”
He says one of the most memorable moments of his career was doing exit interviews with the doctors and nurses he trained to serve after the destructive earthquake in Haiti three years ago.
“Nine out of 10 said it was life altering,” he recalls. “We were creating opportunities to not only help other people, but transform lives. To be able to go to Haiti after the earthquake and be able to help where there is great need for healthcare providers – it’s very satisfying.”
What he’s most proud of at this point is having been able to create opportunities for other healthcare providers as well.
“We have over 300 health care workers who have worked in developing countries and disaster settings in the last five years alone,” says Dr. Garzon. “Right now, I’ve been very busy trying to set up a team to go to the Philippines…I expect to join them in a couple of weeks.”
Currently in Cuzco, where he says there is an underserved indigenous population that doesn’t have enough medical resources, he’s looking to become affiliated with existing health care programs in the area and accompany their work by sending more health care workers to volunteer or teach.
“We feel we can extend our impact by teaching local providers to deliver better care,” says Dr. Garzon.
“We’ll see if we can donate medical supplies and equipment if the need is there.”
He says the goal is to have multiple sites around the world, and he’s planning a trip to Colombia in February to look at another site. The fearless doctor says he is usually at a specific location for a month at a time.
“In tropical areas, there is more concern,” says Dr. Garzon. “Malnutrition is something that we commonly see there…One provides food, another uses funds to encourage local farmers to stimulate the local economy and avoid famine in the future. In this day and age, famine is a political problem.”
He says the next two months will be very busy. The day after he gets back from Peru, he will rush to the Philippines. Like all of his emergency relief trips, the trip was unplanned. Yet, it makes a world of difference.
“Almost universally the reaction is of gratitude and appreciation,” says Dr. Garzon about the reason why he does this kind of work. “Usually we’re delivering care to communities who haven’t seen a doctor ever or for several years.”