True to Their Vow
A small farming community 13 miles from the Kansas border, Burlington is the kind of place where most of the 3,200 inhabitants have known each other for generations and your word is your bond. In 1992 the town was desperate for doctors after two of its four physicians retired. Enter feisty local farmer Harold McArthur, 88, who had heard that two Burlington men, sons of Mexican-born migrant farmworkers, had just graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Colorado State University with dreams, if not the means, of going to medical school. He offered to pay their way, some $250,000, if they agreed to return home to practice. And another thing, McArthur recalls saying: "We're not going to sign any damn contracts!"
No need to. Through med school, internships and residencies, the duo never wavered. Meanwhile county authorities built a new $980,000 clinic, the Parke Health and Wellness Center. "Good medical service is vital to keeping a community vibrant," says John Hudler, co-publisher of The Burlington Record and the one who introduced McArthur to "the kids," as many folks in town call Perez and Pimentel. "The neat thing is that the hospital stepped up."
By returning to Burlington, where one out of every four patients speaks Spanish as a first language, the bilingual physicians answered another need, says Grace Anne Siekman, a clinic nurse: "Trying to get a female history from a mother while her 7-year-old son is there interpreting and handling the personal questions—that's really tough."
Throw in the fact that these docs make house calls, and it's no wonder the kids have been embraced since their return in July. Pete Conger, a D-Day veteran, even switched doctors to see Pimentel. "People all over town are talking about how good these boys are," says Conger. The clinic staff agree. "They are both really kind and considerate," says Brenda Briegel, the office manager and a former classmate of her new bosses'. "They answer phones," says receptionist Sarah Rush, "and take patients back to the rooms."
On March 4 some 300 local people showed up for an official tour of the new ll,528-sq.-ft. clinic—and to wish the new doctors well. No one was prouder than their parents. "Right now I am very emotional," says Jacob Perez, 54, a farmhand, who came with his wife, Anna, 54, a cook. "He cares for people; since he was 7 or 8 years old, that was his role, being the interpreter—not only for us, but also for others."
Israel Pimentel, a factory worker, and his wife, Juanita, a homemaker, both 56, drove more than 200 miles from their home in Dodge City, Kans., to attend the open house. "We always thought that we would have somebody who would finish high school," he says. "But we never imagined we would have a doctor."
The odds were certainly against it. Born in Durango, in central Mexico, Perez moved with his parents to North Hollywood, Calif., in 1973 (his brother Raul, 28, is a grain-elevator foreman). The migrant family followed the produce-picking season to Florida, Michigan and Ohio before settling in Burlington in 1974. Pimentel, who was born in Michoacán, Mexico, crossed the border with some of his family—he has four siblings—in 1971, moving to Burlington three years later.
Among only a handful of Hispanic students at Burlington Elementary School, the boys met in fourth grade. At 15, Perez decided to become a doctor after his younger brother, who had suffered from seizures, was misdiagnosed. The physician who treated the boy told the family that Raul, then 11, would need brain surgery. Another doctor finally discovered an electrolyte imbalance that could be controlled with medication. "You need to be in there," Perez remembers his father telling him. "We need an insider."
In high school the two boys were the only minority students taking college-prep courses. When Perez told Pimentel he was aiming for premed, his pal recalls thinking, "What the heck, I might want to be a doctor too." Adds Perez: "We really didn't have anybody to look up to for support, so we looked to each other. We were equally confused and didn't really know what a good college was. Being like that together made it easier. I could see there was at least one other person who was just as lost as myself."
At Colorado State the pair studied together and returned home most weekends. And they both fell in love: In 1991, Perez married hometown sweetheart Stacie Stewart, now 26; they have a son, Adam, 7. Pimentel married Elsie Segura, now 29, a middle school teacher, in 1993. Stacie's mother, Nancy Stewart, never doubted that the doctors would come home. "Their roots are here," she says, "and it's a great place to raise kids."
Though they're happy to be back in Burlington, the two doctors and their families still cope with the occasional claustrophobia that comes with small-town life. "The biggest thing I miss is my privacy," says Pimentel. "You go to Denver to a restaurant, you can say whatever you want. Here you have to always watch what you're saying in public." But, he adds, "there are definitely more positives than negatives."
Such as practicing medicine with his best friend, in a small town, where they are called on for all manner of emergencies—including delivering Burlington's babies. For their recent effort, Pimentel was the more experienced—it was his third cesarean section to Perez's first as a full-fledged doctor. "It went really well," Perez says, "but it was great to have each other."
Vickie Bane in Burlington