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Health & Medicine

What Parkland’s Chief Medical Officer Learned Helping His Native Puerto Rico

After Hurricane Maria, Parkland Chief Medical Officer Roberto de la Cruz spent three months on sabbatical in his native Puerto Rico.
By Shawn Shinneman |
Illustration by Kirsten Ulve

At Ascension at The Crescent, Dr. Roberto de la Cruz is sitting across from me in shirt, tie, and white jacket, hospital badge positioned on his right shoulder, ordering a soppresatta and fig jam panini with—take note here—a side salad. The greens connect to a recent health kick, which took root after he launched a “Joy At Work” initiative for the physicians at Parkland, including a healthy lifestyle component. “I worry about the doctors’ well-being, but I have to take care of myself,” he says. It was an a-ha moment: “I gotta’, like, go to the gym and eat healthy.”

The lightbulb appeared during a three-month sabbatical in Puerto Rico, where de la Cruz was born and raised. After undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania—he started there at age 17—he went back to medical school at the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine in San Juan. Residency was at UT Southwestern, and it didn’t take long for him to work his way up to an associate medical director role at a Parkland clinic. He spent a decade and a half with Baylor University Medical Center before becoming one of Parkland’s many “boomerangs,” as he calls them. He was named chief medical officer in fall 2015.

In fall 2017—Oct. 2, to be exact—Hurricane Maria made landfall in his home country, eventually becoming the deadliest hurricane in a season that gave Texans a clear look at its brutality. De la Cruz remembers driving around Dallas gathering supplies in the days following, noticing other Puerto Ricans here doing the same. Within two weeks, he headed southeast. “If you can imagine a place without leaves,” he says of the scene. “People were crying on the plane just looking out.” He spent the trip uniting with family and friends, dropping off supplies.

Back at Parkland, the system fielded calls and letters from people on the island asking for medical supplies, and Parkland CEO Fred Cerise looked to de la Cruz for guidance. “I realized that there was no effective way of sending things, that the requests were coming in a disorganized way, and that we’re a public hospital and have no free goods to give,” de la Cruz says. That was a gut check. “I had to sit down and say, ‘My recommendation is we can’t do anything.’” He would get his chance when Parkland granted him a sabbatical to use on a three-month stint with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, doing healthcare recovery. He learned lessons in resilience and leadership and exhaustive planning. He also saw first-hand the result of a sluggish disaster response.

“The system doesn’t support what happened, and they should learn from that.”

“It was slow because everybody was overwhelmed,” de la Cruz says between bites. “There were two other disasters going on. FEMA doesn’t have that many employees, and HHS doesn’t have that many employees. They don’t have that many subject matter experts—they had to hire me from the outside.” The revolving door of employees and volunteers made gaining momentum difficult. “The system doesn’t support what happened, and they should learn from that,” he says.

Amid the devastation and in the place he grew up, de la Cruz took time to assess his own habits. When he returned, as a welcome-home gift, colleagues had made him a coffee mug decorated with a word cloud signifying the phrases they heard him repeat time and time again. “Joy at work” was among the most prominent (right up there with “avocado toast,” a favorite indulgence). It had become his obsession, spurred on by a desire to lift physician well-being and quell burnout.

But, it’s hard to urge your colleagues out the door at 5:30 p.m. when you’re there every night until 7 p.m. It’s hard to push for healthy habits if you’re not making your own sacrifices. Hello, side salad. “When you have time away from your family and from work,” says de la Cruz, taking a few final sips of his coffee, “it’s a unique moment to sort of recalibrate.”

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