The doctor is in WNY native Fernandez: Cardiologist, Ivy League grad
by : Nicolas Millan Reporter staff writer
Dec 16, 2007 | 1001 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
When Harold Fernandez first began attending West New York's Memorial High School, he didn't speak a word of English. Yet years later, he would graduate in 1985 as the class valedictorian.

One of West New York's most popular success stories, Fernandez visited the school late last month in an assembly meeting to discuss with students the importance of ambitions and dreams.

A prominent cardiac surgeon at St. Francis Hospital in Long Island, N.Y., Fernandez also spoke on health issues including staying away from smoking, proper dieting, and other methods of keeping the heart healthy.

"It was very nostalgic to be there," he said. "Obviously, Memorial was a very special place for me. It was almost the transition from being an immigrant to going to an Ivy League university."

In a phone interview, Dr. Fernandez described his West New York past.

"I've kept in touch with some of my closest friends that I went to school with over the last few months. I've [also] been in contact with some of the teachers. Sal Vega used to be my coach for indoor and outdoor track, and I speak to him periodically. [Vega] was very close to me when I was there for the four years."

Dr. Fernandez's central point when directing the students at Memorial was for them to pursue their dreams and never give up.

"I had two basic messages [for the students]," said Fernandez. "One was to stay in school and that beyond that, they need to make a commitment to their dreams and pursue them. Two, in order to do this they have to work hard everyday, and know things aren't going to come easy. [They have to] fight and work hard for their dreams to come true."

Fernandez knows a thing or two about pursuing a seemingly distant dream.

As a Colombian native arriving in West New York, the young immigrant learned the language quickly transferring from his English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to regular classes in only six months. At this point, Fernandez's future looked bright and promising, however, there was something always holding him back from accomplishing his goals; he was an illegal immigrant.

A long journey

Fernandez immigrated from the infamous town of Medellin, Colombia at the age of 13. Along with his brother, the duo embarked on a dizzying journey to reunite with their parents who already were living in West New York. After his parents paid $600 to have him and his brother snuck in, the two brothers left Medellin and rerouted to the Caribbean where they would depart from.

With hurricane season in effect, the trip was delayed two weeks before the brothers embarked on a six-hour boat trip to Florida.

Upon arrival, funding from friends was sourced in order to purchase tickets to New York and reunite with their parents.

That's the first encounter young Harold Fernandez had with the town of West New York.

After graduating from Memorial in 1985 as valedictorian of his class, Fernandez's options for college were limitless, but the graduate focused on attaining the best education possible and attended Princeton University for his undergraduate work.

Fearing that his illegal-immigrant status might prevent him from pursuing higher education, Fernandez submitted a fraudulent Social Security number and residency card to the university.

Fernandez recalls living his life as being under a "fleeing system" where fear played a large role.

Studying under the dread of being exposed, it took a year and a half into his studies for the university to learn of his true status.

To his surprise though, Fernandez found a lot of support from the university and his professors and was assisted in finding a lawyer that would handle his case.

Soon after a court appearance, the judge lifted his status of illegal and granted him and his family residency status.

Advancing his educational career is something Dr. Fernandez takes great pride in.

"I think my major accomplishment after being a father, after marriage, and having a home, is focusing on my education," said Fernandez.

Life and legality

The college student then had his status amended to label him as an international student studying in the United States and changed his pending government grants for college into student loans.

Afterwards, Fernandez attended Harvard Medical School, from which he graduated in 1993.

Dr. Fernandez then began an eight-year residency as a surgeon at the New York University Medical Center and later began his work at The Heart Center in St. Francis Hospital located in Roslyn, Long Island.

He has been performing surgeries at the center since 2001 and has been reported to have saved thousands of lives to date. He's also regarded as one of the best cardiologists in the state of New York.

Dr. Fernandez has long been vocal about his past experiences and wishes others would learn from it.

Superintendent of Schools of West New York, Dr. Robert Van Zanten said that Fernandez is a learning example for students.

"[Dr. Fernandez] is a wonderful example of how kids can achieve coming from ranks of the immigrant. By being a WNY graduate and [students] knowing his achievements and hearing them from the man himself, all children in WNY will benefit."

Fernandez takes great pride in describing himself as a humanitarian and using his voice for an unheard majority. "[The lessons] apply to anybody," said Fernandez. "It applies to immigrants in general and also all the kids that come from disadvantaged backgrounds; whether it's for Hispanics, Asians, or African-Americans - it's for all the students."

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