They were two pediatricians, dedicated to caring for the children of poor families. Grateful parents would pay with a chicken or a dozen fresh eggs.
But this was Cuba, and when Fidel Castro came to power, doctors were told to devote their practice to the upper class. When an armed soldier came to their home and seized their files and typewriter, Elisa and Felix Hurtado decided it was time to leave the island nation they loved.
Their forged documents said they were off to a conference in Canada. So they would look like they were coming back, they left almost all their possessions behind. Their daughter, Elisa, took her doll, stuffed with $200.
It was January 1961, right before the Bay of Pigs crisis. The family flew to Calgary, and then flew to Miami, where they relocated as refugees. Their daughter, Elisa Kinder, recently recalled what that was like.
“My dad explained everything to me, after we left Cuba. He didn’t want me talking about it before we left. It was hard for my parents. My dad was born in Cuba, and my mother was born in Spain but moved to Cuba with her family when she was a child. It was frightening, but my dad just set us down and said, ‘This is going to be a better life for all of us.’ And I was fine with it. By that time, it was OK.”
After three months in Miami, the Hurtados were sent to Oklahoma, where Elisa and Felix went to work for the U.S. Indian Health Service. The doctors stayed with the Indian Health Service for the rest of their careers, transferring to New Mexico in 1964 and then Tucson in 1971. Elisa specialized in pediatric ear, nose and throat care. Felix practiced general pediatrics in the IHS and was chief of pediatrics in the hospital in Tahlequah, Ok., and hospital director in Gallup and Sells.
The family spent one year with the University of California, Berkeley, where Felix and Elisa received master’s degrees in public health in 1969. Both were later honored by the U.S. Surgeon General for their work with the IHS: Elisa received the Exemplary Performance of Duty in the Public Health Service award in 1983, and Felix was given the Surgeon General’s Distinguished Service Medal in 1984.
The Hurtados’ story is one of courage and compassion. It is a story that their daughter, Elisa Kinder, wants to preserve well into the future by establishing the Drs. Felix and Elisa Hurtado Scholarship for Pediatric Medicine in the UA College of Medicine – Tucson. Its purpose is to provide scholarships for third- and fourth-year medical students who want to go into pediatrics.
“I’ve got a super good friend who is an investment adviser and was almost part of our family,” Elisa Kinder said. “I sat down with him and I said, ‘I’ve got to create something that lasts. I don’t want to buy a bench in a park. I want to do something that’s going to honor what my parents did, by helping others.’
“My dad always told people, ‘When you go to a doctor in Tucson, make sure they went to the UA. If they went to the UA, they are a good doctor.’
“And my dad always encouraged students, if they were thinking about going into medicine, to go into pediatrics. He said it was ‘fun medicine’ because kids are fun, even when they’re sick.”
Elisa and Joe Kinder moved to Tucson 20 years ago. Before that, he was a community resource officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, and she worked for Pacific Bell, the phone company. When they were able to retire, they wanted to be closer to Elisa’s parents.
Felix died July 26, 2012. Elisa died June 4, 2009, of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
“She knew she had Alzheimer’s disease,” her daughter said. “She gave up her driver’s license herself because she was getting a little lost, and she knew it.”
Elisa Hurtado was a patient of UA neurologist Geoffrey Ahern, MD, and took part one of his studies of how Alzheimer’s develops. Soon after she was diagnosed, she made the decision to donate her brain to Alzheimer’s research at the UA.
She told her daughter, “I can still contribute to medicine after I die.”