Dr. Charles Gourzong: Costa Rica’s visionary medicine man

February 1, 2017
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Years ago, when I lived in Brooklyn, New York, one of the highlights of the summer´s end was the Annual Caribbean-American Labor Day Parade which was held on the first Monday of every September. Like its Canadian counterpart, Caribana, the Labor Day Parade was a giant, colorful mash-up of people from all over the Caribbean. Always loyal to Costa Rica, I would happily wave my flag in time with the pounding rhythms of soca music along Eastern Parkway. Most years, Costa Rica has a small contingency marching in the parade, reflecting a hesitancy in claiming the country as part of the larger Caribbean.

It was at one of these fetes that I bumped into several Afro-Costa Rican women who stopped me in recognized kinship because of my proud Costa Rican flag. After quick greetings, the exchange immediately focused on who we knew in Costa Rica.  The minute I said my family name was Gourzong, from Limón, gasps emerged – along with the question, “Is Dr. Charles Gourzong your relative?”

When I explained that we were indeed close cousins, a barrage of testimonies to his transformational medical care came flooding out. One woman confided that she still flew to Costa Rica to consult Dr. Charles. Jr., as he was the only physician she trusted.

I recently had the chance to sit with Dr. Charles Jr., and share these marvelous stories of his patients abroad: testaments to his profound service as a medical doctor and humanitarian. As an Afro-Costa Rican pioneer of medicine in Costa Rica, Dr. Charles Gourzong Jr., has an incredible life history. He shared how he helped build many aspects of Costa Rica’s exemplary medical system, all while struggling within the confines of race and class.

I was fortunate enough to ask him a few questions about his life as a physician in Costa Rica as he is now happily retired, yet a much sought-after consultant on medical issues and training.

Charles William “Billy” Gourzong Taylor Jr. was born in Limón to parents who were also Limonenses but with Jamaican origins. His father, Charles Gourzong Sr., was the payroll director for the Northern Railway Company. Charles Jr. was the second of seven children. By the age of nine, he had declared that he wanted to be a physician.

Only years later did his father recount the story of his own failed attempt at being a medical doctor. As a graduate of Calabar High School in Jamaica, Charles Sr. won the first scholarship for students to study medicine at Cambridge University in England, but there was a condition: upon the completion of the degree, he would have to provide 16 years of medical service in Nigeria, far away from his family. Charles Sr. turned down the opportunity and created an impressive life in Puerto Limón, while having his dream fulfilled through his eldest son, Charles Jr.

In the mid-20th century, students in Costa Rica who wanted to attend medical school and had the wealth to do so traveled abroad to study in Mexico, Chile and Belgium, as there was no medical school in Costa Rica at the time. In 1961, the first Medical School at the University of Costa Rica was inaugurated in San José. By 1965, the Northern Railway Company created the first 10 scholarships for the top students in Limón, and Charles Jr. secured one of the ten, which covered the five years of medical school. Charles Jr. was the first Afro-Costa Rica to enter the Medical Faculty of the University of Costa Rica in 1966.

He hoped to become a medical doctor and return to the Tony Facio Hospital in Limón to work in support of the local Afro-Costa Rican community, as many only had second-class medical care. People with serious medical issues had to be taken (usually by road, a journey many did not survive) to hospitals in San José, because the Limón hospital did not have the equipment or staff to provide the emergency care.

Once he graduated from UCR, Dr. Charles got his wish: he was given a position at the Tony Facio Hospital in January 1974. He was the only Afro-Costa Rican medical doctor there. His following within the Afro-Costa Rican community was instantaneous and large.

However, his time in Limón was short-lived. He returned to San José a year later to begin a residency at the Hospital México so he could become a specialist in Internal Medicine. Today, Dr. Charles Jr. is considered one of Costa Rica’s pioneers in that field. In addition, when the hospital built the first Intensive Care Unit in Costa Rica, Dr. Charles Jr. was the first resident physician to do rounds there.

1n 1978, he returned to Limón to live and work there as a specialist, along with his growing family: his wife Ana; three sons, Charles, Michael and John Paul; and daughter Gretchen. It was a natural (and logical) progression for the doctor to establish the country´s second Intensive Care Unit in Limón in 1986, though not without a fight!

His critique of Limón’s second-class medical services was in direct conflict with the Directive Board of Social Security (Caja) back in San José. When the Unit was threatened with a reduction in funding, Dr. Charles Jr. mobilized support from the local Black unions in Limón, including the railway workers, the gas station workers and those at the port. Through his perseverance and community support, the Intensive Care Unit in Limon remains one of the best in Costa Rica.

With his children’s education in mind and wanting to stay current with medical advances, Dr. Charles Jr. decided to move his family back to San José once more in 1989. In 1990, he became the Head of the Department of Internal Medicine as the Hospital Calderón Guardia until his retirement in 2009. He trained some of today’s top Costa Rican physicians and was the leading researcher in the cure for Rickettsiosis, a tick-based disease which caused the deaths of many Ticos, as for years doctors were stumped on a cure. He trained many doctors in his successful treatment, including doctors from the Children’s Hospital, as many children were getting tick bites which had previously been incurable.

Dr. Charles Jr.’s illustrious career, not only as a leading specialist and researcher, but also as a professor of medicine for over 29 years, has yielded countless honors, awards and recognitions. He has been invited to present his research on snake bites, hypertension, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, has attended medical conferences around the world, and was a guest physician at Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital for his work on HIV/AIDS, as well as at Montreal’s McGill University. Not only does he have a teaching room dedicated to him at the Calderón Guardia Hospital in San Jose, but he also holds a revered space within Limón. There, he has been honored by the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA); received the Asociacion AfroCostarricense award in 2002 and a gold medal for Humanitarian Assistance in 2003; and was the guest of honor for Limon´s Dia de La Cultura Negra in 2004.

The renowned doctor never forgot his roots. Every two weeks, even as the Chief of Internal Medicine at the Caldeón Guardia, Dr. Charles Jr. would return to Limón and provide medical service to his community, which consisted mostly of house calls. Multi-talented and deeply religious, Dr. Charles Jr. has been the pianist for the Baptist Church in Limón and the First Baptist Church in San José for a combination of forty years.

As a proud grandfather of six, Dr. Charles Jr.´s living legacy is his humility, perceptiveness and human compassion. He has saved countless lives and even today, as he is recognized around San José and especially within the medical community, there is a hush of awe from the younger physicians who one day wish to walk in the footsteps of a man of such gentle elegance.

Read more from Natasha Gordon-Chipembere here.

Natasha Gordon-Chipembere holds a PhD in English. She is a writer, professor and founder of the Tengo Sed Writers Retreats. In June 2014, she moved to Heredia, Costa Rica with her family from New York. She may be reached at indisunflower@gmail.com. Her column “Musings from an Afro-Costa Rican” is published monthly.

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