Gustavo Ferrer, MD – Just Breathe: The Story of a Cuban Doctor

06/24/2017 07:18 am ET Updated Jun 25, 2017

Gustavo Ferrer, MD, is an award-winning pulmonologist trained in Cuba and the US. He is founder of Cleveland Clinic Florida Cough Center and president of Intensive Care Experts based in Florida. He is author of Graceful Exit: How to Advocate Effectively, Take Care of Yourself, and Be Present for the Death of a Loved One, to be released May 2018, and the book Cough Cures: The Complete Guide to the Best Natural Remedies and Over-the Counter Drugs for Acute and Chronic Coughs, where he offers a blend of Western and natural remedies to address acute and chronic respiratory issues. Dr. Ferrer began his medical work in Cuba, then was hired by the United Nations University to serve as Director of Respiratory Research where he worked with the native people of Venezuela’s Orinoco River. He eventually moved to the US where he completed his residency at Texas Tech University and received a fellowship in Pulmonary and Critical Care at George Washington University. Dr. Ferrer has received several prestigious awards, including being listed among the Best Doctors in the US by US News & World Report, and has been featured in USA Today, NBC News, CNN Español, radio shows, national and international newspapers. He has also been invited to a White House briefing to discuss Affordable Care Act.

What many do not realize about this highly determined healer is that life hasn’t always been so easy. In fact, the odds of him ever accomplishing his dream were so stacked against him, that some might consider his success a miracle. At 17 years old, Ferrer left the farm he grew up on to study medicine in Guantanamo and from there, he moved 500 miles away to Havana, to begin his pulmonary medicine residency. He had no money and nowhere to live, forcing him to take extra shifts at the hospital he worked at. At night, he would sleep in patient rooms, in hospital closets, or occasionally on a friend’s floor. He was homeless during his pulmonary medicine education, and was at one point incarcerated in Venezuela for living in the country on a lapsed visa. He remembers vividly being rescued out of police car by a group of friends—like scene out of a James Bond movie. In the early 2000s he defected to the United States, where, while painting houses to make a living and learning English on the side, he completed his medical boards and eventually joined Texas Tech where he studied internal medicine. From there, he transferred to George Washington University where he studied pulmonary and critical care medicine, and from there he has built a reputation as one of the best pulmonary specialists in the country.

I recently had the chance to talk with Dr. Gustavo Ferrer, who shared some of the lessons he learned along his journey. Here is Dr. Gustavo Ferrer, whose motto in life and business is quite simple; just breathe.

Resistance: Admittedly, Dr. Ferrer says that he had to jump over and through hundreds of obstacles to pursue his dream of coming to the US to practice medicine. Yet he is thankful for all the problems he encountered along the way because every snag or difficulty came with a silver lining. He learned how to focus his mind on the end goal, even when faced with adversity, and to juggle many responsibilities at once, like when he arrived to the US and was balancing his job as a painter, learning English, and taking his medical boards all at the same time. He says his resourcefulness came from his having been homeless while practicing medicine in Cuba, and his empathy for others was born out of his own struggle to make it through very difficult times. Dr. Ferrer says that resistance in life builds mental toughness, which in turn gives one the ability to achieve big dreams: “When you realize that every problem is a gift, you appreciate them for what they are when they come along, rather than dreading that you are once again confronted with another obstacle.”

The Journey: For Dr. Ferrer, life is about the journey, not the destination. “Every day contributes to your life in some important way,” Dr. Ferrer says. “It’s important to seek clues and to stay focused on the present, instead of focusing on some future reality that you are either dreading or trying to do.” When Dr. Ferrer was in Cuba practicing medicine, he had a dream of coming to America to become a doctor. His journey ended up taking him to the Orinoco River Valley in Venezuela, where he practiced medicine and learned from one of the oldest tribes who lived along the waterway. It was not a straight-cut path to his dream of practicing medicine in America, but he learned a great deal about herbal remedies, cultural sensitivity and end of life by taking this life detour to Venezuela. “If you simply start practicing the art of appreciating each moment,” Dr. Ferrer says, “you begin to gather an abundance of information that you will take with you for the rest of your life.”

The Gift of Quick Forgiveness: He says that difficulties and problems along our life’s journey will bring strong negative emotions—anger, guilt, hate, etc.—that we must quickly learn to free ourselves from. In the intensive care unit where he deals with death and dying daily he learned that death shows us how finite and fragile life is on this earth. When we accept that death is inevitable, living with intention and in the present, becomes easier, this way we’re not unconsciously preoccupied with resentments and fears. His latest book “Graceful Exit” is a collection of stories from his patients and where he learned this valuable lesson in life.

The Art of Medicine: He believes that the art of medicine heals much more than diseases. Doctors who practice this can bring healing to the soul through words of encouragement, understanding by listening and they can even contribute to saving the patient and the country money by educating them. It is for this reason that he wrote “Cough Cures” first and then “Graceful Exit”. These two books act like the front and back cover of one great book that describes the best possible healthcare system, a system that utilizes the right place and value for each practice that brings healing. As he often jokingly says, “I’d never use teas to treat a patient in the ICU. In the same way, I will never intubate a patient suffering from mild cold…There should be a balance for everything.”

Get Out of Your Cocoon: Dr. Ferrer has built a very successful medical practice and no longer worries about where he will eat or sleep at night. That being said, he has a keen appreciation for others who are currently struggling in their lives. He says he never wants to lose sight of the fact that there are people who are suffering in the world, and that every person has a responsibility to lend a hand to those who need it. His own family is still struggling to survive back home in Cuba. This is why Dr. Ferrer takes his family to a local homeless shelter in Ft. Lauderdale one Saturday a month to serve breakfast. He says this is a reminder to himself and to his kids about the importance of staying humble. As well, he hopes that his story serves as inspiration to those he talks to—his main message being that anyone can achieve a dream, regardless of the obstacles in front of them.

Just Breathe: His motto is simple, just breathe. Dr. Ferrer says that even though his journey has been anything but easy, he has always learned to simply put one foot in front of the other, relax a bit and trust that help will come along when needed. When Ferrer defected to the US, he recalls landing at the airport in Atlanta, with only $100 in his pocket. He couldn’t speak English, and wasn’t quite sure where he would go from there. Not knowing how to use a pay-phone he sought the help of a janitor whom he overheard speaking in Spanish. He asked her to please help him make a phone call. After the phone call, the nice woman took him to the ticket counter. The ticket to Miami was $180, but he only had $100 to his name. As he was trying to explain this to the woman at counter, an old woman standing behind him overheard the conversation. With a heart for immigrants she understood his struggles and ended up giving him the money he needed to get to Miami. Dr. Ferrer says that when you are faced with huge mountains, it’s very easy to get consumed by worry. But if you can just find it in you to relax, and just breathe, everything will eventually work itself out, often in the most unexpected of ways.

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