From Humble Beginnings to a Meaningful Mission

James Gonzales ’71, MD, grew up in Boulder, CO, the youngest child of parents who had to leave school in the eighth grade to find work during the Depression.

Raised in the shadow of the Cold War, he recalls his father building and stocking a blast shelter in the basement of their four-room cottage. “My ancestry is not elite—my lineage is likely that of trouble makers. According to family folklore, Dad’s ancestors were driven out of Spain and Mom’s were forced out of the British Isles,” he said.

If Gonzales wanted to go to college, he was going to have to get there on his own steam.

He did. Today Gonzales is a successful Denver anesthesiologist. The young man from a tiny Boulder cottage now lives in a remarkable Georgian reproduction he designed largely himself. He stocked it with a robust collection of Colonial memorabilia and literature, to evoke the Annapolis architecture and history he fell in love with as a midshipman. Increasingly, his life is driven not by his local practice, but by the extensive missionary work he has been doing for almost 30 years—the last 18 in Cambodia.

Academy Days

At Boulder High, Gonzales was a good student and an even better wrestler, which turned out to be his key to an Academy appointment. “Navy Wrestling Coach Ed Peery was like a second father to the whole wrestling team,” Gonzales said. “Coach Peery didn’t care about the color of your skin, where you came from or what your parents did. All he wanted to know was ‘are you willing to work your butt off to be the best wrestler you can be?’ That was it. Because of that, everyone loved him.”

Gonzales’ experiences on the mat helped prepare him for far more impactful experiences later in life.

“Whether on the court, the field, the mat, wherever you compete, you learn how to deal with loss. You’re not going to win all the time,” he said. “You’ve got to pick yourself up and keep going. That’s part of the maturity of a midshipman, and later of a well-rounded officer—be it an ensign or a second lieutenant.”

As he approached graduation, Gonzales was drawn to service as a SEAL, but at the time Naval Academy graduates could only apply for SEAL training after serving three years in the fleet. Gonzales opted for flight school instead, flying for almost six years out of Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia.

“When the oil crisis hit in 1975, the cost of jet fuel skyrocketed,” he said. “As a result, some pilots went from flying once a day to barely once a week. Cockpit proficiency took a big hit. Friends died.”

It was time to consider his next step.

Entering Medicine

“I briefly thought about being a doctor when I was a kid. I had a good friend whose father was a family practitioner and general orthopedist,” Gonzales said. “He used to take us into Boulder Community Hospital on Saturdays to make rounds, and afterwards to lunch at McDonald’s. That physician volunteered to write one of my Academy recommendation letters.”

Gonzales’ Academy education didn’t exactly offer ideal preparation for medical school, not that it mattered—at the time Academy grads were not allowed to apply directly to medical school. The Class of 1971 was the first class permitted to achieve a baccalaureate degree with a designated major. However, this entailed a heavier schedule of classes and limited ability to change one’s major after the start of Youngster year. Unsure of a major, with a feeling of consternation, Gonzales agreed to major in math, a decision that would haunt him until graduation. Upon graduation, Gonzales only had a B-minus average, well below the stand-out medical school applicants coming straight out of college. Gonzales also lacked the basic prerequisite pre-med classes. “I went to night school my last two years of shore duty to take a bunch of pre-med classes like anatomy, biology and organic chemistry,” he said.

Accepted at several schools, Gonzales decided to return home to the University of Colorado Medical School. Four years later at his graduation, he asked the two physicians doing his exit interview why the school admitted him.

“Being a Naval Academy graduate and collegiate wrestler were major factors. Past experience as a naval aviator flying jet aircraft was also a big plus. Those things and the fact that I aced all my night school classes were the determining factors in giving me a thumbs up,” he learned.

It was not until his third year of medical school that Gonzales discovered an issue that could have been a life changer. During a semi-final match at the state wrestling tournament his senior year in high school, he sustained what he thought was just a bad wrist sprain causing chronic intermittent pain that he learned to ignore. In fact, the injury was actually a scaphoid bone fracture, a medical disqualification for the Academy.

Giving Back

“My parents expressed to me that people in my life would be instrumental in opening doors of opportunity that otherwise would have remained closed. Therefore, if I ever arrived at a place in life where I could give back, I needed to do just that,” Gonzales said.

The first recipient of Gonzales’ gratitude was the son of the physician who first inspired his medical dreams. Many years later, the son’s business fell on hard times. At the same time, the son’s daughter lost her soccer scholarship to a catastrophic knee injury. Gonzales paid her tuition until graduation. Boulder High School has also been the recipient of his significant support.

The Navy wrestling program has also benefited from Gonzales’ generosity. “When I attained the wherewithal to give back to the Academy, I decided to honor the person who helped mold me and thousands of other midshipmen—Coach Peery. Coach Peery never had the funding to do many of the things he thought would bolster the Navy wrestling program. I decided to change that. Navy wrestlers now have the opportunity to travel to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. They train with Olympic wrestlers, run up and down the infamous Manitou Incline and run/hike the trail to the top of Pike’s Peak. This alone has made a profound impact on team skill set and esprit de corps. When I go up to the ‘big wrestling mat in the sky,’ my estate, in one way or another, goes back to Annapolis to support the Navy wrestling program in honor of Coach Ed Peery.”

But the largest recipient of Gonzales’ generosity, not just of treasure but of his time and talent, is undoubtedly his medical missions.

“Upon finishing a fellowship in 1988, I returned to Denver to begin private practice. I joined a group of other local physicians in forming a medical mission called Project Open Hearts,” he said. “After the breakup of the Soviet Union, medical care in most of the former Soviet Republics cratered. This was especially true of central Asia. On our first few missions to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, we found only aspirin in hospital pharmacies and all medical supplies being recycled for lack of any replacement stock. Multiple mission trips were made to central Asia with Project Open Hearts until the late 1990s. After 2000, I participated in a few missions to Rwanda, then joined a non-governmental organization, Christian Medical Mission Cambodia. Mission trips with this organization have been ongoing for the past 18 years. In June I will be retiring from my anesthesia practice in Denver, and I plan to do more mission work in Cambodia and other [developing] countries in the future.”

Gonzales pulled a photo of a small boy from his bookshelf. “This boy’s picture is emblematic of why I have continued doing mission work. A mission nurse found this four-year old orphan out in one of the Cambodian provinces. He was diagnosed as having a severe congenital heart defect and would likely not have survived past the age of seven without corrective surgery. Our mission team successfully corrected the defect and he fully recovered. Stoic beyond his years, while in the hospital he never cried or whimpered. I still picture him following my every move with big brown eyes. Several months following surgery, he was adopted by an Australian couple. He went from sure death in a Cambodian orphanage to a normal life in Australia.”

Gonzales revealed, “Growing up, my parents were quick to remind me that I was blessed the day I was born in the U.S. My life has been blessed in many ways. As I grow older, I realize that every new day is a blessing in itself. At some point in time, we will all have to face the creator. I firmly believe you will have to answer the question, ‘Did you help your fellow person on this small planet in the universe, or not?’”

Source: Shipmate: October 2018