The doctor's connection to Baptist Health started at birth
By Abraham Verghese
Gabriel Suarez, M.D., jokes that he must have entered the world with pineapple juice in his veins. His connection to Baptist Health’s iconic logo, the pineapple, seems predestined.
Born at Baptist Hospital in 1985, the lifelong Miamian did his specialty training at Florida International University/West Kendall Baptist Hospital Family Medicine Residency Program. Recently he started work at the same location, caring for patients at Baptist Health Primary Care’s Family Medicine Center. He is the residency program’s first completely homegrown doctor, fulfilling its mission to develop local talent to address the need for more primary care doctors.
On the way to becoming a family medicine physician, Dr. Suarez experienced more than a few coincidences, twists and turns that kept leading him back to Baptist Health. "I still pinch myself when I realize how fortunate I am to be working in the health system where I was born," Dr. Suarez said. "Family is very important to me, and I wanted to stay in Miami near my parents and grandparents. But there were times it looked like that might not happen." Dr. Suarez grew up just two miles from Florida International University, so it was no surprise when he donned FIU’s blue and gold after graduating from Belen Jesuit Preparatory School. At the time, FIU did not have a medical school, but by his senior year, the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine had opened. After he already had accepted a spot in medical school in Arkansas, he got an offer from FIU that changed his course. He jumped at the opening here and entered the college’s second incoming class.
When Dr. Suarez realized he wanted to specialize in family medicine, the FIU/West Kendall Baptist Hospital Family Medicine Residency program did not yet exist. Once again, things aligned to keep him in South Florida. By the time he was ready to be matched to a residency, the new FIU-West Kendall program was up and running. He graduated from medical school in 2015 with both an MBA and a medical degree, and began his three-year residency at West Kendall Baptist Hospital, where he eventually became chief resident.
Now, Dr. Suarez sees patients at the Primary Care Family Medicine Center at West Kendall Baptist Hospital and also teaches new residents. "When you are able to help someone, it’s validation that you made the right decision," he said.
Agueda Hernandez, M.D., residency program director and medical director of the Family Medicine Center, is happy that doors kept opening in time for Dr. Suarez to pass through them. "I’m thrilled he has joined us as a colleague," she said. "He embodies qualities that make a wonderful family physician. He is knowledgeable, personable, empathetic, conscientious and committed to excellence. He is a product of this community who has worked hard and excelled, and it has been a pleasure to teach him and witness his development."
While medical school and residency gave Dr. Suarez the education and training necessary to be a good physician, he says his most valuable life lessons have come from his parents. As a young boy, he watched his mother calm her noisy kindergarten class with a few quiet words. In the summer, he accompanied his father, a beverage distributor, to hotels and restaurants, where he learned the importance of building relationships and communicating well.
These are skills he brings with him to the exam room. "I ask questions and listen," he said.
Dr. Suarez has a special interest in the elderly, seeing a bit of his grandparents in the older patients he treats. He recalls two women in their mid-70s who had multiple health problems.
"He is a product of this community who has worked hard and excelled."– Agueda Hernandez, M.D., medical director of Baptist Health Primary Care’s Family Medicine Center
"They had accumulated many medications because they used the ER when they were in crisis, coming in every other month for high blood sugar, back pain, urinary tract infections — you name it," he said. "They had very little education about their conditions, and their caregivers, usually family members, changed frequently."
The circumstances evoked compassion in Dr. Suarez as he thought of how his own parents struggled to find appropriate care for his grandparents, an 87-year-old grandmother who is in an assisted living facility, and a 96-year-old grandfather who lives with his parents but is in hospice care.
In follow-up appointments, he talked the patients through their health problems, eliminating medications they did not need and arranging for specialists when issues needed more in-depth care. He also gave their caregivers basic health and safety tips, such as how to prevent falls and keep blood pressure under control. In addition, he went over possible resources they might qualify for, such as home health services.
Today, with a primary care physician for the first time, the women are doing well. "They come in every three to six months and now we are not putting out fires," he said. "I can see my work is paying off."
One of the reasons Dr. Suarez wanted to stay with Baptist Health after his residency is the unique relationship among the healthcare team. He personally knows the specialists he refers patients to and has their cell numbers. "You don’t have to think twice about referring to another physician when you know that person’s bedside manner, skill and professionalism. My patients are the ones who benefit."