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From humble beginning to surgery chief at Laurel Regional Hospital [History Matters]

The inspiring story of Dr. Felix Flores, who overcame great hardship to rise to the position of chief of surgery at Laurel Regional Hospital, is an incredible tale on its own. His story becomes even more amazing with the revelation that his father, also named Felix, was a soldier in Pancho Villa's army during the Mexican Revolution.

Dirt-poor and having no formal education, the elder Felix Flores started working as a boy to help his family. As a teenager, he got a job as a coal stoker for trains, and learned to be a train engineer. Like many Mexicans caught up in the fervor of the Mexican Revolution, he became politicized in his teens. Growing up in Tampico, in the middle of the country on the Gulf of Mexico, Felix identified with the forces in northern Mexico fighting for Pancho Villa and joined up. Villa formed an alliance with fellow revolutionary Emiliano Zapata to oppose Venustiano Carranza, who would go on to become President of Mexico.

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Villa and Zapata used trains to transport their troops across Mexico, so the young train engineer from Tampico became very useful. After the combined forces occupied Mexico City on Dec. 6, 1914, interim President Eulalio Gutierrez held a banquet at the Presidential Palace, with Felix and other important loyalists in attendance.

After the Revolution, Felix and his wife lived in Tampico and had six children, including Felix Flores, who was born in 1924. The family lived in a ramshackle house on stilts to prevent flooding, with no electricity, indoor plumbing or telephone. They had running water but it wasn't safe to drink. In spite of the hardships, Flores credits his parents for being responsible for his success.

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When he turned 12, Flores attended a technical school in Monterrey, Mexico, where he lived with relatives. However, he was such a disciplinary problem that he was expelled a year later and returned home. In Tampico, he went to a pre-vocational school (much like a U.S. high school) and seemed to learn his lesson. Flores now says, "I learned in school that doing homework was important."

After graduation, he went to a vocational school (equivalent to a U.S. college) in Mexico City, where he studied biology and decided to become a doctor. He was accepted to the medical school at the University of Mexico but couldn't afford books for the first two years. Amazingly, he kept up anyway. During his third year he got a job as a salesman for a pharmaceutical company, which provided the means to buy his books. He lived in an apartment with some other medical students but survived on government programs to feed the poor. When he visited his parents, he hid under tarps on trucks transporting building supplies to Tampico. He graduated as a doctor of medicine and surgery in 1950 and was accepted at the Hospital Infantil de Mexico, where he became a pediatrician.

In 1953, Dr. Flores received a fellowship in pediatrics at a hospital in Rochester, N.Y., fulfilling his dream to work in the U.S. His four-day bus trip to Rochester gave him a chance to really see the country. A stop in Waco, Texas, gave him his first exposure to American discrimination. On one side of the highway was the restaurant for whites only, with the blacks-only restaurant on the other side. He later said he felt uncomfortable in both. During the year he spent in Rochester, the hospital hired a tutor to help him with his English.

After working as a pediatrician for a few more years, Flores decided he wanted to be a surgeon. A friend working as a surgeon at Prince George's Hospital Center in Cheverly alerted him to a surgical residency that was available, so he returned to the U.S. It was there he met his future wife, Janice, who was a nurse. They married in 1959 and he still refers to her as "an angel." He also spent 1961 as a surgical resident at Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C.

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While serving his internship at Prince George's Hospital Center, Flores was recruited by the late Dr. Robert McCeney to open a surgical practice in Laurel. McCeney shared his Main Street office with Flores while his practice was starting. Flores was the surgeon at the old Laurel Hospital on Prince George Street, until it closed in the late 1960s. McCeney's son, Jim, remembers that when his father was diagnosed with colon cancer, he would only allow Flores to perform the operation. Afterward, Robert McCeney wrote a letter of thanks to Flores, stating "that nowhere else and by no one else than your good self would there be better chances of a successful surgical outcome."

The family moved to Laurel in 1965, eventually raising five children who all attended various Laurel schools. In 2000, Flores told the Leader, "The people welcomed us here. It was just a small town and a wonderful place to raise a family." His practiced flourished over the years, with offices opening on Fort Meade Road, Cherry Lane and the Medical Arts Pavilion next to Laurel Regional Hospital.

When Robert McCeney retired, Flores replaced him as the in-house doctor at both Laurel and Bowie racetracks, tending to injured jockeys and staff.

In the mid-1970s, Flores joined the committee to bring a full service hospital to Laurel. Local businessman Fred Frederick, who chaired the committee, remembers Flores as "a no-nonsense type of guy and very dedicated. Everyone was impressed by him." He served on the Board of Directors for the hospital for many years. In 1982, Brian McCagh, CEO of the Hospital Commission, wrote to Flores that his efforts "have proven vital to the hospital's progressive growth and development as the service area's major health care provider."

As the chief of surgery for the Laurel Regional Hospital Flores is remembered quite fondly by the staff. Former nurse Sharon Chrobak recalled him as "a wonderful man." Frederick said he "was well received by everybody." The Laurel Knights of Pythias awarded their Outstanding Citizen Award to Flores at a ceremony at City Hall.

The recent announcement of the closing of Laurel Regional Hospital has Flores dismayed. "This area needs a hospital," he said;, and speaking of his former mentor, "Dr. McCeney would not believe it."

Flores has spent the past 15 years in retirement with his wife at their Brooklyn Bridge Road home. His story reflects his simple maxim: "It is important to recognize that we have to work hard and always have a goal. That is what I did in spite of the roadblocks. I found that doors were closed for me but I always found a window."

History Matters is a monthly column rediscovering Laurel's past. Contact Kevin Leonard at info@theleonardgroupinc.com or 301-776-9260.

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