Local Heroes: Dr. Harold Fernandez, the DREAMer Who Became a Heart Surgeon

Dr. Harold Fernandez of Stony Brook University Hospital.
Dr. Harold Fernandez of Stony Brook University Hospital.

Dr. Harold Fernandez was 13 years old when he came to the United States from Colombia. His father and mother had left the children several years earlier to live and work without immigration papers in New Jersey. Harold and his eleven year old brother would live the same precarious life of the undocumented immigrant. Next month, CARECEN will be honoring this DREAMer at our Annual Dinner and I was able to interview him in preparation.

Harold was left with his grandparents in Medellin as a boy. “Our understanding was simple,” he recalls today, “we were told that our parents were away so we could live better.” The news that his mother and father could finally bring the boys up north was magical. “In the place where we lived everyone looks at the U.S. as the land of opportunity so we were very excited to be coming to paradise.” The reunion of his separated family was equally important. He says that “we just wanted to hug our parents after not seeing them for so long.” The two brothers were smuggled to the United States from Florida. “We were overwhelmed just being here with our parents” the cardiac surgeon recalls.

Harold arrived in New Jersey on a Friday and on the following Monday his mother enrolled him for school. In school he saw that “hard work created opportunities.” When he was able to win a scholarship to a two month summer science program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he learned that even though he was undocumented he could still fund an education through scholarships.

Unfortunately, Harold’s high school did not always encourage him to aim high. His guidance counsellor advised him to go to community college after graduation. “I wanted something more challenging,” he says, “I was inspired by the idea that if I pushed myself hard, I could be at one of the top schools.” Although he was accepted at Yale, he decided to stay closer to home and attend Princeton. Harold was happy to be in a community of scholars, but he says that he “lived in fear that at any moment someone would find out that I did not have documents.” He says he dealt with his fears by focusing on his studies in the emerging field of molecular biology.

As he neared graduation, Harold’s family applied for permanent residence while in deportation proceedings. Senator Bill Bradley wrote in support of their applications for legal papers. Finally, after seven years living underground, Harold Fernandez became a permanent resident.

Although no one in his family had even gone to college, Harold wanted to become a medical doctor to “relieve people’s suffering.” Harold was accepted at Harvard Medical School. After graduation his followed a grueling road to become a cardiac surgeon. Successful in his career and recognized in his profession, Dr. Fernandez has used his past as a DREAMer to speak out for young people brought here by their parents who still have not gotten the chance to live here above ground.

“I wanted to show people what an undocumented immigrant really looked like”, he says. “I also wanted to tell immigrant students that they must keep their dreams alive.”

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