Costa Rican astronaut and entrepreneur Franklin Chang-Diaz most famous quote is “Nobody gets anywhere without the help of others”. I have never met Dr. Chang-Diaz, and I’m not going to talk about him, but I surely agree with his quote. All of us owe our achievements, big or small, to others. This is precisely the subject of the monthly respond to A View from the Q, this time, who’s been an influence and an inspiration in my quality journey?
I could write about my parents, certainly a positive influence for me, teachers, bosses, coaches, college professors, but today I want to concentrate in the somehow “indirect” influence of Dr. Roberto Ortiz-Brenes, one of the best pediatric surgeons in the world.
DR. ROBERTO ORTIZ-BRENES AND HIS LEGACY
Let me briefly introduce Dr. Ortiz-Brenes. As many of the great generation of Costa Rican physicians he studied in Mexico in the 1930’s. After finishing his general studies he went to complete his specialization in pediatric surgery in Chicago. After his return to Costa Rica, he started a successful career as pediatric surgeon at Hospital San Juan de Dios. In 1953 and 1954 a polio epidemics hit all the Americas. In Costa Rica alone hundreds of children were affected. The image of up to 4 or 5 kids lying down transversally on a hospital bed was the moment he and his colleague Dr. Carlos Saenz-Herrera knew they had to do something drastic. In 1954 they started the funding of a local children’s hospital. Dr. Saenz-Herrera was the soul of the project and Dr. Ortiz-Brenes was by far the engine that made it a reality. After 10 years and help from everywhere and almost everyone in the world (including President Kennedy, see picture of bald Dr. Ortiz and president Kennedy in his March 1963 visit to Costa Rica). In may 24th 1964 Hospital Nacional de Niños opened its door.
Dr. Ortiz-Brenes became the most sought after surgeon in the new hospital, working long hours with nothing but a candy for lunch. He was never afraid of trying new things for the advancement of medicine and he published many papers in the most important medical journals in the world. Later in his life he would proudly introduced his former patients telling how he saved their lives and pointing at the part of the body where he performed his surgical procedure. Many babies were named Roberto, or even Roberta, after him. I even played basketball with Ornes, his parents named him after the first two letter of the doctor’s first last name and the last two letters of his second last name (ORtiz – brenES, thus ORNES).
In one occasion during a trip to France, he bought a very expensive piece of medical equipment. He knew the hospital did not have any budget for that. When he got back he smoothly convinced his boss, Dr. Saenz-Herrera, for the need of this equipment. At some point Dr. Saenz-Herrera agreed he would consider it for the following years’ budget, that’s when Dr. Ortiz jumped with the “good news” that he had already purchased it. Somehow they found the money. That was business as usual with Dr. Ortiz, he never knew the word no.
The hospital needed to complement its funds and the annual Feria de las Flores, an event that was started in 1954 when the two doctors first came with the children’s hospital idea, was not enough. Dr. Ortiz came with one of his crazy ideas, what about an amusement park that will help fund the hospital? He borrowed some land from the Costa Rican Social Security, got some money to start the park and with no experience whatsoever in this line of business, went to his first IAAPA (International Association of Amusement Parks Association) convention and bought a bunch of second hand rides. In December 18th, 1981 Parque Nacional de Diversiones (now Parque Diversiones) was opened (needles to say that the formal name of the park is Parque de Diversiones Dr. Roberto Ortiz-Brenes). In 2003 he was inducted to IAAPA’s hall of fame, see his induction video here.
One last thing, he came from a wealthy family, owner of a huge dairy cattle farm in the mountains of Coronado northeast from San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital city. In 1947 he was one of the 25 founders of Dos Pinos, a cooperative dairy products company that has become one of the largest in Latin America.
ORTIZ-BRENES AND ME. TAKE 1
My history with Dr. Ortiz has two parts. Part one was in 1970 when I was five years old. My tonsils were the size of oranges and I was constantly sick. My pediatrician decided the best thing for me was to get a tonsillectomy, a harmless, easy surgical procedure. Dr. Ortiz happened to be my father’s client at my family´s car shop, and he gladly agreed to do the procedure. Even though I was five, I already knew the name; somehow I knew he was famous for something. Before the surgery I went to visit him at his office, I remember a giant figure in a white robe with his deep and confident voice. My mother asked him if he was sure I would be all right. He got slightly and politely mad at my mom, and pointed to the many pictures he had in his office: “this kid: open heart surgery, this other kid was pronounced dead before I took him, that one there: congenital malformation I fixed her like brand new… and you doubt I can perform a tonsils procedure?” Let’s just say that my mother was convinced from that point on. I remember when I was taken to the operation room, I had Speedy, yes the Alka-Seltzer mascot, with me, it was my most precious toy (for reasons that scape me now), Dr. Ortiz said, “get the kid here and get rid of Speedy”, I cried like crazy. He then asked, “why is he still awake?” the nurse put the mask on me and that was it… When I woke up, I saw my family, a nurse and Dr. Ortiz, he said “don’t cry fellow if you don’t cry it won’t hurt” I believed him. Two or three weeks of ice cream, Jell-o and smashed food was my after surgery treatment, and I skipped kinder garden the rest of the year. For a long time I only knew about Dr. Ortiz when he was on the news.
ORTIZ AND ME. TAKE 2
I was about to start my first business when I was offered the operations manager position at the amusement park, that was 1999. Three things crossed my mind: one I loved amusement parks, two I would work for Dr. Ortiz, three an steady income wasn’t such a bad idea while I developed my print shop (my first business). Early in my two years tenure, I strongly disagreed with him on one issue (he was not involved in the day to day operations but he remained president of the board and frequently visited the park), and it was in the open where everybody saw us arguing. He got so mad at me that he left the park that very minute, many thought that was my last day as operations manager. But the opposite actually happened, he liked the fact that I stood for what I thought was the right decision. After two years in the park I considered my job done, I had a conversation with the general manager, and we both agreed it was better for me to leave. Dr. Ortiz calls me to a board meeting and makes me sit next to him, and he tells the board how he feels about me, that he knew from day one that I wouldn’t stay for long, and that I was too “inquieto” (restless) for that position. He then tells me that he expected big things from me. The first thing that came to my mind when I received the Fellow letter from ASQ, was Dr. Ortiz saying “inquieto, this guys it too inquieto for the park”.
We stayed friends until he died in 2008. Even though I ended up being taller than him, he remained the giant I met when I was five years old.
LESSONS FROM DR. ORTIZ
Being the best he could be at his profession.
Always think global.
Being a social entrepreneur even before the term actually existed.
Never say no, find a way.
See grandness in others and give them a chance.
Turn into reality even the boldest of ideas.
I’m part of the ASQ Influential Voices program. While I receive an
honorarium from ASQ for my commitment, the thoughts and
opinions expressed on my blog are my own.