Cuban Doctor Found Home, Healing In U.S.

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Dr. Gustavo Mestas with his daughter, Ileana Smith, at StoryCorps in Delaware.

Dr. Gustavo Mestas with his daughter, Ileana Smith, at StoryCorps in Delaware. hide caption

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In 1963, Dr. Gustavo Mestas and his family escaped from Cuba and Fidel Castro's communist regime. His daughter, Ileana Smith, was 10 at the time. When she asked him about their move recently, Mestas responded with a laugh.

"That is a very complex problem," he said.

The answer involves an initial moment of joy at Castro's victory — and the realization, Mestas said, that with the way things were going, "this is not good for my children."

So when a friend with a boat talked about leaving, Mestas said he and his family would leave, too. They got on the boat and headed for Florida.

"I remember I was looking out the porthole," Smith said. "I saw the Russian coast guard, with their big guns."

And when they encountered a patrol boat during the nighttime voyage, Mestas' friend cut the engine on his boat for silence. His instructions to the passengers were clear: "No one talk, no nothing," Mestas said. "Because the patrol boat is the one that was killing people."

After reaching Florida, Mestas struggled. He had to attend more medical school before he could practice in the United States. He took the classes at night.

In the daytime, he worked in manual labor: picking tomatoes, cleaning motels. Then he walked to medical school.

"But even when you didn't have money for the bus," Smith said, "you bought me a Barbie doll."

"Because in Cuba, you had a room full of dolls," Mestas said. And the family had to sell them or leave them behind.

"And I said, 'Soon, I will buy you another doll,'" Mestas said.

Mestas was an orthopedic surgeon in Cuba. But he decided to be a general practitioner in the United States — he didn't want to wait for years before being able to practice.

Of his new life, Mestas said, "The people here, the way they accepted me and the way they treated me, I paid them with hard work."

Over the course of a 30-year career, Mestas never missed a day in his office, he said.

"Even today, after more than eight years retired, I go to the grocery and I see the ladies and they kiss me," Mestas said. "I think they love me."

"I know they love you," his daughter responded. "They always tell me."

"I want you to know you have had the greatest influence in my life of anyone," she said.

"And I love you, and I respect you and admire you."

Produced for 'Morning Edition' by Nadia Reiman. The senior producer for StoryCorps is Michael Garofalo.



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