An Immokalee pediatrician says caring for low-income kids is a mission, not a job

By TRACY X. MIGUEL
http://www.naplesnews.com

Ancema Uriostegui holds Jesus, 1, on her lap as she waits in a lobby area about the size of a bus. The other eight chairs — worn, green and made of wood — are filled with other parents and children waiting to see Dr. V.

Laughter fills the pediatrician’s colorful office in Kemp Plaza, an Immokalee strip mall adjacent to a discount store, Sunshine Medical and Therapy Center and a Protestant church.

For the past 10 years, Uriostegui, 36, has taken her four children, ages 12, 10, 8 and 1, to pediatrician Melanio Villarosa. She recalls the time he treated her adopted son even though he had no insurance. He didn’t charge them anything.

Villarosa sees 25 patients during the course of a day — all low-income and under the poverty line.

“More than being a good doctor,� says Uriostegui in Spanish, “he has a good heart.�

Perhaps Villarosa’s office is not only a pediatrician office, but also a ministry of sorts.

***

In the hallway, photographs of more than 125 patients and donated religious decorations hang on the blue and white walls.

A portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe watches over the 865-square-foot office with three pink and blue exam rooms filled with an array of cartoon posters on the walls and ceilings.

The clinic has no computer filing system, so with the help of his two nurses, Villarosa hand-writes each file at the end of the day. Often, Villarosa, a husband and father of four who commutes daily to Immokalee from his home in East Naples, doesn’t leave his office until 7 or 8 p.m.

While checking out Jesus’ heart with a stethoscope, Villarosa asks Uriostegui about her son’s health. The concerned single mother was visiting the doctor because Jesus was suffering from constipation.

“Lo siento (I’m sorry),� Villarosa tells Jesus as he checks him. He’s wearing a bolo tie with a buttoned-up long-sleeved shirt and slacks. He rarely wears a white doctor’s jacket. He wants to be approachable to both adults and children, he says.

To ease the boy’s tears, Villarosa playfully pokes a finger at his belly and “magically� pulls stickers from behind his ear.

Jesus’ tiny hand accepts the stickers. He giggles.

During the visit, a nurse gives Uriostegui a free packet of about 72 diapers, one of about 15 packets donated by Ave Maria University.

For the past 18 years, Villarosa has been committed to helping families in the small farming community 40 miles northeast of Naples. He doesn’t charge patients who don’t have insurance or charges very low fees. Of Villarosa’s 1,000 patients, about 90 percent are on Medicaid.

“We don’t discriminate,� Villarosa says. “To me, they are children of God.�

Funds to serve patients without insurance — for free or for a fee of $10, $15 or $20 — come from One by One Leadership Foundation of Southwest Florida, a faith-based, nonprofit organization. The pediatric clinic receives at least $1,000 a month from them, Villarosa says.

Florida Community Bank, which has headquarters in Immokalee, has been paying his medical malpractice insurance premiums for the past two years. This year, he received more $12,000.

The board felt that they needed to support Villarosa, says Steve Price, chairman of the board and CEO of the bank.

“Dr. V is an outstanding pediatrician and Immokalee desperately needs him,� Price says. “He is not only a good doctor, but a man who has a good heart.�

Father Patrick O’Connor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish echoes Price’s sentiments, commending Villarosa for giving up what could have been a “very lucrative career� to serve the poor community.

“I think he’s a wonderful role model,� O’Connor says, adding that Villarosa is both a doctor of the body and of the spirit.

That fits with Villarosa’s personal mission: He serves God by treating children, he says. Villarosa, who was born in Virginia and raised in the Philippines, treats children with a mission to serve God.

“The most important thing is not money,� says Villarosa, 51. “The most important thing is that you want to leave a legacy, that you have made the community better.�

Standing in the office hallway, Villarosa talks about God. He returns to the subject often and without much prompting. God, he says, gave him a talent. He’s the Lord’s hands, he says, and he’s there to serve those in need.

“My goal is to glorify God.�

In the end, he doesn’t earn much and drives a 2007 Toyota Corolla, but has been “blessed by the people.�

“He wants to help the poor and share his passion for the Catholic church,� says nurse Christie Garcia, who has been working with him for more than three years.

He’s the male Mother Teresa, Garcia says.

On his long commute to his office, Villarosa listens to language CDs. Although he speaks Tagalog (a Philippine language) and English, he’s trying to learn Spanish, Creole and two Guatemalan dialects — K’anjobal and Mam.

“In order to reach the people, you need to speak their language,� he says.

At times, he relies on nurses Garcia and Lisa Gomez to translate the medication treatment for patients.

Villarosa takes Jesus over to the wall of the exam room, pointing to an article hanging on the wall. The headline is “Ave Maria, a Town Built by Faith.� That’s faith, but it’s also education.

The university supports his mission because it’s in line with Ave Maria’s mission, including pro-education and pro-life agendas, says Carole Carpenter, Ave Maria president of university relations. Ave Maria plans to honor him with an honorary doctoral degree during its commencement ceremony in May.

Villarosa encourages parents to read to their children and tells parents to be serious about their education, so that one day their children can attend Ave Maria University or any other higher education institute.

He hopes they listen to him.

“Education is very important to help them get out of their poverty level.�

***

Across town, Maria Teresita, his wife of 23 years, prays daily for her husband’s safe trip and return.

The 48-year-old Philippine-native says she doesn’t see her husband work or long hours as a sacrifice. That’s because the joy of helping Immokalee residents outweighs it all, including replacing their worn English Queen Anne style furniture that they have had since moving to Naples from New York in 1991.

“We thank God that we are doing okay and we are healthy,� she says.

The Villarosas met at Far Eastern University Hospital in Manila, Philippines, while he was a medical student and she was a nurse. They have four children — Danielle, 22, and Melanie, 20, who are both students at the University of South Florida, Angele, 17, a Naples High School senior, and Josiah, 13, an East Naples Middle School student.

Villarosa choose to work in a poor community because it reminds him of the Philippines, she says.

In 1990, Villarosa began working in Immokalee under NCH’s Downtown Naples Hospital, formally Naples Community Hospital. From 1995 to 1998, he was with Columbia HCA, before operating his own clinic in December 1998.

Inside the family’s pink home in Berkshire Lakes, family pictures and religious icons are scattered around the house. A bar area has been transformed into an altar with a soft cushion kneeler seat where the family prays together in the mornings.

Miniature statues of Jesus, rosaries and bibles decorate the altar.

There is a prayer corner in each of the home’s four bedrooms.

Maria, whose friends and family also call Tess, says her husband has always been devoted to God. Early dates included attending prayer groups together.

She says her husband does his job for one simple reason: God.

“He really loves the Lord,� she says. “I think what he feels is that he is so blessed that he wants to give everything.�

***

On a recent rainy afternoon, the office is nearly empty. Walking is the main form of transportation for many Immokalee residents.

On one side of the hallway, donated items from the local community, including clothing and toys, lie on the floor.

Villarosa walks into one of the exam rooms holding a Winnie the Pooh book (“You Can Count With Me�) for 7-year-old Kasandra Galvan, whose arms are a blotchy pink.

Her concerned mother, Luisana Garza, asks Villarosa if what her daughter has sunburn or a rash.

While examining her arms, Villarosa, who carries wooden tongue depressors in his shirt pocket, begins to question Kasandra’s mother.

“Is she vomiting?�

“No.�

“Coughing?�

“No.�

“Diarrhea?�

“No.�

“Pulgas (fleas)?�

Kasandra, who wears a Lake Trafford Elementary School uniform polo shirt, bursts out laughing.

Within minutes Villarosa is writing a note for over-the-counter medication to treat pityriasis rosea, a common skin disease.

As Kasandra scratches her arms, he hands her mother free samples. He turns to Kasandra.

“Do you have a boyfriend?� he asks her smiling.

She laughs.

“He’s a good doctor,� says Luisana Garza, 24. “I don’t know what I would do if he wasn’t here.�

Garza has seen Villarosa with both Kasandra and Gabriel Galvan, 6, who are Medicaid-insured, for the past three years.

Apart from his medical expertise, they enjoy his sense of humor.

Villarosa says he loves treating children because he enjoys telling jokes and hearing people laugh.

It’s 5 p.m. The nurses have left. He shuts of the lights and walks to his car.

He’s not going home, though. It’s Wednesday and Villarosa heads to the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Immokalee, a few miles from his office. He has been a leader of Teens for Christ there for the past five years.

After praying and singing with a group of about 80 teens, Villarosa talks about faith and enjoying life without sex, violence or pornography. He also treats the group to pizza.

Villarosa is also active in Couples for Christ Youth in Immokalee and Naples.

Garza says she also appreciates the doctor’s devotion to God and his participation in the youth group in the community.

“A doctor like this, you cannot find one,� she says.

Another mother, Paula Santos, 32, echoes Garza.

Villarosa has been the children’s doctor for the past five years.

“He’s a great doctor,� says Santos, an Immokalee farmworker, in Spanish. The Santos family is there to check on 7-year-old Karen Reyes Santos’ cold.

While holding her 18-month-old daughter in the hall, Santos says the entire staff is attentive to her family’s medical needs.

If you ask Villarosa about the personal cost of so much time away from his family, he’ll say there isn’t one.

The people in Immokalee, he says, are part of his family.
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