Camilo R. Gomez, MD has a personal history that few physicians share: he and his family twice had to leave their home countries--first Cuba, then Venezuela--because of what he now calls the "political deterioration" of both nations, before eventually moving to the U.S.
What lessons has the world-hopping experience taught him? "Mainly that the U.S. is the greatest country in the world, and I have no interest in living anywhere else," he says.
Gomez's American education--a postgraduate one--took place at St. Louis University's medical center, where he was chief resident in neurology and director of the hospital's stroke center before he was recruited by UAB in 1995. As a neurologist, his specialty is stroke intervention, and another part of his bio that sets him apart is the number of techniques and terms he's either introduced, or popularized, in the field.
For example, he coined the cogent phrase "Time Is Brain," which means that for a patient who's just suffered a stroke, every second spent awaiting treatment is a precious one. He also introduced the phrase "Code Stroke," while creating a system similar to the widely used "Code Blue" for cardiac arrest, at a time when there wasn't such an equivalent for strokes.
"Congress declared the 1990s the 'Decade of the Brain,'" Gomez says, "with a big push for brain and stroke research. We know that any stroke intervention has to be applied very early to be successful. Time wasted is literally brain wasted. Today that idea is paramount, but at the time it wasn't. Many physicians were nihilistic in regard to the treatment of stroke." At the time, he wrote an editorial on the subject that received mixed responses from other doctors.
At UAB, Gomez collaborated with the Birmingham Regional Emergency Medical Services System's (BREMSS) executive director Joe Acker to create a regional system for stroke management that's often cited as a national model. "People have attempted to replicate it, but there's nothing else at our level," Gomez says. "When Brookwood [where he now practices] was recently visited by The Joint Commission, its representative was pleasantly surprised by how the system operates."
His schooling also includes an MBA degree. “That education has allowed me to better understand the business aspect of medicine and made me better at negotiating the obstacles in the labyrinth of regulatory issues we deal with daily. I only wish I'd completed that program a decade earlier, because the tools have been so helpful. They've given me the ability, for instance, to communicate in the language of administrators. In the future I think you'll see many more doctors getting MBA degrees."
In his off-time, he's made use of his Cuban childhood to become a gourmet cook. "I picked it up from my mother, who was a very good cook. When she was alive, the two of us loved to cook together.
"My original major was chemistry, and cooking is a lot like chemistry. You take these ingredients and then you magically come up with a result that's better than the sum of all the individual parts. It's also not dissimilar to interventional neurology--every procedure has its own equipment and methodology, just as recipes have ingredients and execution."
People who taste authentic Cuban cuisine for the first time are often surprised, he says. "Contrary to popular belief, it isn't spicy at all. Certainly nothing like Creole or Cajun dishes." (Coincidentally, Gomez was part of a team of volunteers from Brookwood Hospital in the annual Cajun Cook-off fundraiser for Girls, Inc. His team won top prize in the dessert category, for its White Chocolate Bread Pudding. "I had never cooked for so many people before," he says with a laugh.)
He also helped create an authentic Cuban Food Night at Primeaux Cheese & Vino Restaurant in Birmingham, whose owners are his friends. "They're from New Orleans. He's an anesthesiologist, and his wife is an attorney of Cuban descent."
The five-course menu, with wines, included two roasted pigs Cuban style; other recipes ranged from black beans bisque with a citrus-sherry gelato, to ceviche--a fresh raw seafood dish whose side elements can include corn, avocados, plantain, or other vegetables. And to top it all off, three types of flan for dessert. "It was a lot of work," Gomez says of the experience, "but it was a great meal, if I do say so."
As to last month's historic normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, Gomez says he feels the same way many Cubans do: ambivalent.
"On one hand, the embargo should have been lifted many years ago, for a variety of reasons, if nothing else because it is simple common sense. On the other hand, the devil is in the details, and I don't completely trust the motivation of the government. It's like we're all waiting to see what's behind Door Number Two."