A Renaissance man looks back on 50 years in medicine
Photo courtesy of Alfonso Esguerra
Some people might call Alfonso Esguerra, M.D. ’64, HS ’66, FW ’69, a modern-day Renaissance man. Aside from co-founding a renowned medical center in Bogotá, Colombia, he has participated in civic service, commissioned architectural projects, formed philanthropic and social enrichment organizations, written two books on Latin American paternalism, and established a flower farm that exports over a million stems each year. Esguerra says these endeavors are borne from a “why not?” attitude and what he calls “responsible self-learning”—a value ingrained in him by the Yale system.
Although he has enjoyed a successful career, Esguerra did not always think that medicine was his destiny. An early fascination with the visual arts often competed with the lure of his family’s tradition—both grandfathers, his father, and two of his three uncles were physicians. But it took only a few premed classes at the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogotá to ignite his passion for the biological sciences.
After completing his medical education at Yale, followed by an internship at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, a radiology residency at Yale-New Haven Hospital, and subspecialized training as the Yale William Wirt Winchester Fellow in Thoracic Radiology, Esguerra returned to Colombia in 1969 at age 30. He practiced radiology in Bogotá, where he was soon recognized for his professionalism and leadership.
But Esguerra had a broader vision—to establish a comprehensive nonprofit medical center in Bogotá. Of course, he said, this venture would never have become a reality were it not for the unwavering support of his wife, Gloria, who also donated the land where the hospital stands. Their first recruit for the project was José Félix Patiño, M.D. ’52, HS ’58, a former Colombian minister of health. “It took me two years to convince him of the idea and instill in him the enthusiasm Gloria and I felt for the project,” Esguerra said.
The Esguerras and Patiño were among the six founding members of Fundación Santa Fe de Bogotá (FSFB) in November 1972. It would take seven years to obtain financing from Colombia’s banking community. Another Yale alumnus, architect George Nelson, B.F. Arch. ’31, designed what Esguerra envisioned to be “a hospital so humane it would not look like a hospital.” Nelson dubbed the project “The Colombian Garden of Health.”
In 1979, Esguerra was named the general director of FSFB, charged with “getting the job done.” It was no small task. He began by forming an executive team, and hiring hospital planners and equipment consultants. He supervised the hospital’s construction, and participated in selecting the members of a top-notch medical staff. FSFB opened its doors on January 31, 1983. Two years later Esguerra considered “the job done” and resigned his post.
A 7.5-acre plot of land in a tree-lined neighborhood at the foot of the Andes Mountains became a major medical center under Esguerra’s leadership. Today it consists of a tertiary care hospital, an outpatient specialty clinic, an emergency clinic, and an oncology institute serving 150,000 patients a year. It operates within Colombia’s national health system, which insures more than 90 percent of the population. Esguerra is most proud of the degree of institutionalization FSFB has achieved. “It should be the organizational characteristic of all major Latin American enterprises,” he adds.
After extensive self-retraining, Esguerra returned to radiology in 2002 following a 20-year hiatus. As chief of the chest section in the FSFB diagnostic imaging department, he founded the Center for Interactive Digital Education in Radiology (CIDER) and its companion website (fsfbcider.org), of which he remains editor in chief.
As Esguerra readies to retire after 50 years in medicine, he says he “remains committed to becoming a better person. What has mattered most is making a difference as one shares and contributes to community interests.” Esguerra looks forward to spending quality time with Gloria; their two daughters, Beatriz and Maria, their sons-in-law, and their four grandchildren. He also plans to document the history of FSFB, paint, tend to his garden, cook. “… and someday soon, visit New Haven to enjoy once more the bells of the Yale carillon, as they play Cole Porter songs.”