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Southwest Florida doctor brings skills to third wo...
Southwest Florida doctor brings skills to third wo...: Whether he is in a state-of-the-art operating room in Cape Coral or a makeshift surgery center in the Dominican Republic, Dr. Thomas Carrasquillo is driven by the desire to heal. Video by Guy Tubbs.
Dr. Thomas Carrasquillo operates on a patient in the Dominican Republic / Special to news-press.com
Carrasquillo examines a patient in the Dominican Republic while on a medical mission trip. / Special to The News-Press

About Passionists

Passion powers many lives in Southwest Florida. This monthly series highlights people on fire with love — whether of people, places, art or ideas. If you'd like to suggest someone to profile, email Amy Bennett Williams: awilliams@news-press.com

Want to help?

Learn how to donate to or volunteer for mission trips to Guatemala and the Dominican Republic: Call 458-8222.

Dr. Thomas Carrasquillo travels abroad to treat poor patients. / Guy Tubbs/news-press.com
Dr. Thomas Carrasquillo operates in Cape Coral; with him is plastic surgeon Dr. Joseph Mazza. / Guy Tubbs/news-press.com

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For more than three decades, he’s suited up to battle death itself, armed with a clinking toolkit of knives, needles, and long-handled tweezers.

Hernias, heart attacks, metastasized cancer — surgeon Thomas Carrasquillo faces them down daily, slicing, snipping, stitching under the blaze of operating room lights. Though he’s not the sort to boast, a glance at his resume confirms that not only is he very good at what he does, Carrasquillo is a leader among his peers.

The first surgeon to care for a breast cancer patient at Cape Coral Hospital, where he’s now its medical director, he’s also served on the American Cancer Society’s board of directors.

So, at this point in his distinguished career, no one would begrudge Carrasquillo a long cruise, a second home in Aspen, or even a retirement party, and indeed, whenever he gets a chance, Carrasquillo travels south, but this 66-year-old son of a Puerto Rican factory worker isn’t Bahamas-bound.

Instead, he heads for the hills — the Third World hills of the Dominican Republic or Guatemala, where he spends several weeks each year treating the poor. With a team of like-minded volunteer doctors, nurses and support staff, he works in ersatz, open-air offices curtained by banana trees or warehouses-turned-operating-rooms using borrowed and begged tools.

“Lee Memorial had some old laparoscopic equipment they were willing to donate, so I had it shipped down,” says Carrasquillo with a grin and a shrug.

His amiable ardor has earned him the nickname “Dr. Passion,” and it applies equally to his medical missions — 25 so far — as to his work with Southwest Floridians, says Lee Memorial Health System President Jim Nathan.

“Tom was one of the very first surgeons to dedicate his practice to the residents of Cape Coral,” Nathan wrote in an email. “Decades later he is still providing dedicated leadership as medical director for Cape Coral Hospital as well as continuing as an active and respected surgeon. He is passionate, humble and caring about his patients and community and has spent his career helping those less fortunate and financially challenged. When no one would take care of the uninsured he would; patients have paid him back with bushels of tomatoes, peppers, etc.”

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Their challenges are familiar to the North Fort Myers resident, who was born in Puerto Rico and came to Chicago with his family when he was 5.

“The original plan was for his dad to earn enough money to go back home and buy a taxi,” says Ann, his wife of 42 years, but because he and his sister got into good Catholic schools, the family ended up staying.

He graduated from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, went to medical school at Chicago’s Loyola University, finished his residency at the University of Illinois Medical Center in 1978 before serving two years in the Army.

“Then in 1980, he joined the first surgical group at Cape Coral Hospital,” Ann says. Twelve years ago, he made his first mission trip after learning about the need from a visiting nurse.

Since then, she’s accompanied him on several and has come away deeply impressed with the man she’s known since he was 17 —and not quite as impressive, she says with a laugh.

“We met as freshmen in college,” she says. “He was very outgoing, but he had these really ugly, thick black glasses — it was 1964 — and I didn’t think too much of him.”

But as they dated over the next seven years, she realized she’d fallen in love with a profoundly spiritual man. Though he was a loving, hands-on father to their two now-grown children — “he went to every dance recital, all the T-ball games,” she says, his patients were never far from his mind.

“For a long time I couldn’t figure out what was going on,” his wife says. “Lots of times when he would come home and he’d be grumpy or want to be alone. I know now he was worried or thinking of them — he’s very empathetic with his patients.”

That’s true whether they’re in Cape Coral; Solola, Guatemala; or an isolated village in the Dominican Republic.

“One place, it’s an 18-kilometer trip (about 11 miles) that takes three-and-a-half hours to drive — all in first gear, up an old mule trail,” Carasquillo says. “The medical care there, it’s maybe — maybe — what we had here in the 1930s.”

With tears in his eyes, he recalls one patient, a woman with cancer that had spread throughout her upper body.

“She was in constant pain,” he says. “We did a forequarter amputation — her arm and shoulder — and got rid of her pain. She lived for another year.” He pauses, looks down. “She was only 59.” Then he looks back up. “So I’m always recruiting. We always need help.”

Ear, nose and throat doctors are in critically short supply, but anyone can pitch in, Carrasquillo says — not just physicians.

“We need support people, people to hold retractors during surgery, translators, MacGyvers who can build things with duct tape and wire. Seriously, anyone can help.”

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