Carlos Gonzales, MD: A Spirit Healer

Carlos Gonzales, MD: A Spirit Healer

When the events at Arizona Health Sciences University begin, Carlos Gonzales, MDassociate professor of family and community medicine at the University of Arizona in Tucson, can often be seen with an abalone shell filled with steaming sage and cedar to deliver a Native American blessing ceremony.

This is just one of many hats he wears at the college, including that of associate dean for curricular affairs, chair of the primary care physician scholarship program committee, and director of the Rural Health Professions Program (RHPP) and the Commitment to Underserved Peoples (CUP) volunteer program. . The latter two roles also place him at the helm of the college’s rural health and community service pathways of distinction.

A native of Tucson, of Mexican and Yaqui descent, he is also a hereditary connection to a line of healers whose roots date back to the 1840s and earlier, to a time before Arizona became part of the United States.

In the inaugural address for a new series of lectures on heritage healing practices, Dr. Gonzales and his sister, Adela Gonzales, shared their family history of grandmothers and great-grandmothers who served as “yerberas”, “parteras”, “sobadoras” and “curanderas” – herbalists, midwives, massage therapists and healers – practicing traditional folk medicine.

Look behind and ahead

Upon reflection, he noted that his career has largely been one of soft power and inspiring positive change by example. Graduates from all walks of life, but especially Native Americans or Latinos, often cite him as a mentor.

“I’ve always focused on cross-cultural medicine, borderline health, and access to care for the uninsured and underserved,” Dr. Gonzales said. “By participating here at the University of Arizona and the College of Medicine, I have quietly and subtly influenced much of the ideology here, where we recruit students who want to help other communities, strongly support the diversity and are ready to advocate for improved health care for underserved populations.

Humble beginnings

Dr. Gonzales speaks candidly, frequently noting milestones in his life by humbly saying, “So I did that” or “I really enjoyed that.” His path to medicine was to seize opportunities as they presented themselves, he said.

His father Pascua Yaqui was a roofer with a third grade education. His Mexican-American mother went further but was not a good student, he said. He was the first high school graduate in his father’s family.

“I have always emphasized cross-cultural medicine, borderline health, and access to care for the uninsured and underserved.”
Carlos Gonzales, MD

“I didn’t know what I was going to do after high school, unfortunately. I was good at math and science, but I had no goals back then because everyone in my family was a miner, construction worker, or lived on the wrong side of the law, smuggling drugs,” Dr. Gonzales said.

Then a UArizona student he knew suggested he join Med-Start, a summer school enrichment program to improve access for high school students interested in healthcare professions.

So instead of moving hot tar from the kettle to the rooftop in the sizzling summer sun with his father, he opted for a position in an air-conditioned university science lab. The job inspired him to go to college and become a doctor to alleviate the shortage of urban doctors he knew all too well.

“The thing is, there were no doctors in the southern part of Tucson. If you wanted to be seen, you had to go to Tucson Medical Square or Thomas Davis, which were all downtown,” Dr. Gonzales said. “A few other doctor’s offices were around Tucson Medical Center and St. Mary’s which were hard to get to with a large extended family and only one car.”

As a child, he remembers going to the doctor occasionally with his great-grandmother. She was the herbalist.

“They had no one to leave me with, so I followed,” he said. “She spoke Spanish and the doctors didn’t treat her well. I saw how she was treated, and it was rather rude and sarcastic, with no sensitivity to cultural differences.

He sought to change that.

At the service of underserved urban areas

Dr. Gonzales won a scholarship to complete his undergraduate studies at Carleton College, a private liberal arts school in Northfield, Minnesota, near Minneapolis. Every summer, he worked as a minority recruiter for Southwestern College, spending the night with friends in Albuquerque or El Paso if necessary.

He returned to Tucson in 1977 as a medical student at the College of Medicine – Tucson and continued with Med-Start as an unofficial student advisor. He and seven classmates (six Latinos and one Hopi) also began teaching elementary and high school students about health education and, with the help of faculty, won a grant that launched this which became the CUP program in 1979.

He went to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque for residency training in 1981 and completed a fellowship in adolescent medicine. He focused on teenagers with drug problems in juvenile detention centers. He hoped to help children like the ones he knew growing up, he said.

His participation in the Arizona State Loan Repayment Program, which like the PCP Fellowship helps make doctors available in medically underserved areas, brought him back to Tucson for three years of service. He spent eight years at El Rio Health (1985-93), serving as Medical Director the last four years.

Old-school country documentary

Tired of paperwork — “not my thing,” he says — he took a friend’s advice to fill a vacant position as a rural doctor in Patagonia, Arizona. His wife grew up on a ranch and wanted their children to have that rural experience too. Their home was outside Nogales, close enough to make a short trip to Patagonia.

“From 1993 to 2006, I was the only doctor in Patagonia. My service area was 1,600 square miles, stretching from Nogales to Sierra Vista, border to I-10. I really enjoyed being this old-fashioned country doctor where you depended on your skills as a doctor, listening to people, examining them, telling the story in a way that it made sense, and stating a diagnosis and treatment. It honed my clinical skills.

Dr. Gonzales will be leaving the Tucson College of Medicine in January, but will remain at Arizona University of Health Sciences to help Global MD, a new medical school partnership with the University of Australia western.He has been active with the Arizona Academy of Family Physicians and the Arizona Association of Community Health Centers. During former President Bill Clinton’s administration, he was appointed to the US-Mexico Border Health Commission, where he worked on cross-border projects to help people.

“Then, boom, 9/11 happens and the border is closed. All of this cooperation is going down the drain,” he said. “All those programs we had planned were gone.”

In 2006, he left his practice to join the college as a full-time faculty member.

“But all the while, I maintained my political activity and entered the national board of trustees of the American Academy of Family Physicians,” Dr. Gonzales said. “That was before the Affordable Care Act. In fact, we were championing a program like the ACA, and I was very involved in it. I also currently sit on the board of the American Board of Family Medicine.

Dr. Gonzales is leaving the Tucson College of Medicine in January, but plans to continue working part-time with Global MD, a UArizona health sciences initiative and partnership with the University of Western Australia. .

“It’s a two and two program – two years in Western Australia and two years in Arizona. I’m going to work on the Arizona component,” Dr. Gonzales said.

Global MD’s focus on rural medicine and Indigenous peoples will enable it to teach students about Native American health issues. He is delighted with this, having worked successfully throughout his career to integrate Western and Indigenous healing practices that focus on healing the mind as well as the body.


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