- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 15, 2009

MIAMI

Dr. Pedro Jose Greer stands in a cool, dim operating room at Miami’s Mercy Hospital, looking at a glowing image of a patient’s digestive system on a flat-screen TV.

Dr. Greer is a gastroenterologist, and the patient lying on the treatment table has a potentially dangerous cauliflowerlike growth on the lining of her colon. The patient is Nora Turcios, a 45-year-old woman with a family history of cancer.

“That’s a polyp right there,” Dr. Greer says, more to himself than any of the three nurses in the room. During the 15-minute colonoscopy, he snips off part of the mass for a cancer biopsy and then reviews Ms. Turcios’ paperwork.

Ms. Turcios, a housekeeper, doesn’t have health insurance. Not important, Dr. Greer said with a shrug.

Dr. Greer, known to his patients as “Doctor Joe,” tells them all that if they lose their insurance while under his care, he’ll continue to treat them regardless of how much, or little, they can pay.

“When did it become acceptable in my profession,” said the 53-year-old physician, “to say ‘no’ to somebody because they have no money?”

It’s that attitude that led to Dr. Greer’s recent honor: the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was given the award in August because he cares for the poor with dignity. In 1984, Dr. Greer founded the Camillus Health Concern, a Miami clinic providing medical care to more than 10,000 homeless and low-income patients annually. He also founded the St. John Bosco clinic, which treats low-income and immigrant patients in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. His latest effort is academic: Dr. Greer is now the assistant dean of academic affairs at Florida International University’s new medical school, where he stresses the need for ethics in medicine.

As one would expect, Dr. Greer has strong thoughts on revamping the nation’s health care system.

“Maybe,” he said, “if we took care of everybody, we wouldn’t need reform.”

For decades, the Miami physician has treated the neediest people even though it would have been easier to earn big money as a top specialist.

“You fight for what you need to do,” he said. “The poor happen to be our sickest. They deserve our undivided attention.”

Dr. Greer was born in Miami by accident.

In 1956, his mother came to Miami to visit relatives. She was 6 1/2 months pregnant. She had what she thought were contractions and went to Jackson Memorial, the city’s biggest hospital. The emergency-room doctor didn’t suspect that the young Cuban woman was about to give birth.

“HLF,” the doctor said, according to Greer family lore: “Hysterical Latin female.”

Dr. Greer was born three hours later on a gurney in the emergency room. A few weeks later, when he was strong enough, he and his mother returned to Cuba, but not for long. When Fidel Castro took over the country in 1959, the Greer family fled and eventually settled in Florida.

Dr. Greer was raised in upper-middle-class Cuban Miami: private Roman Catholic school student, varsity football player, weekends spent boating in the blue South Florida waters.

He attended the University of Florida and was intent on being a lawyer, maybe a politician. He didn’t want to be a doctor, like his father.

“I was going to change the world,” he said.

When, after graduating in 1978, changing course and announcing he would pursue medicine after all, his father was proud and as surprised as anyone. “This had not even been a dream of mine,” he said.

His son earned his medical degree at a Catholic university in the Dominican Republic and returned to Miami. His plan was to leave soon, to travel through the Caribbean and Latin America to treat the Third World’s poor.

But Dr. Greer would soon discover that he didn’t have to go far to find those patients.

Jackson Memorial Hospital, 1984: Dr. Greer was 28 and an intern in the hospital where he was born.

One day, firefighters brought a patient they had picked up on the street into the emergency room. The man had tuberculosis. Dr. Greer was shocked. “Tuberculosis? In this day and age?”

A little investigating revealed that the patient had no name, family or home; he died in the hospital, anonymously. Dr. Greer tried to find out more about the patient by visiting a homeless shelter. With the encouragement of a Catholic brother who ran the clinic, Dr. Greer began volunteering, treating patients two nights a week.

“In America it seemed as if we didn’t care if you suffered, but if you were about to die, we’d scramble to save you at [the hospital] - and then send you back to suffer, to the streets,” Dr. Greer wrote in a book he published in 1999 titled “Waking Up in America.”

Soon after, he walked into the office of Alina Perez-Stable, a Jackson Hospital social worker.

“I want to do something about the homeless,” he said.

Said Ms. Perez-Stable: “He exuded a genuineness, a passion. He identified a problem, and he was going to try to solve it.”

Dr. Greer soon realized that he was seeing only a fraction of Miami’s street people in the shelter, so he eventually sought them out.

“As a society, we have ignored urban poverty for more than 30 years,” Dr. Greer told the Sun-Sentinel newspaper in 1991. “No matter how much work you do, the problem doesn’t go away.”

Working with the Clinton administration on health care was another task, though he said it didn’t go well.

Declined a spot on the health care reform team because it would mean a move to Washington for him, his wife and their two children, he agreed to serve on a Presidential Health Professional Review Group that was charged with studying policy.

“I gradually realized my presence there would have no impact,” Dr. Greer later wrote. “Too often the most critical facts never made it to the discussion table, because the seats around the table were taken up by influence and money.”

Dismayed that “the cards were stacked in favor of the HMOs and the for-profits,” he quit. And the experience has kept him from aiding the Obama administration during the health care reform debate.

“I stay out of politics,” he said flatly.

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