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Dr. Alfonso Francisco Pantoja

Neonatologist's touch is just what the doctor ordered

Native of Peru has increased quality of care at St. Joseph

By Fernando Quintero, Rocky Mountain News, November 28, 2005


It's been a long and arduous journey from boyhood in a little town in the Peruvian Andes to being named Doctor of the Year.

Alfonso Pantoja hasn't forgotten his way. Pantoja serves as chairman of neonatology at Denver's Exempla St. Joseph Hospital, which named him the hospital's top doc in 2004.


"Paco is one of the brightest neonatologists one could find," said Sheldon Stadnyk, chief medical officer at St. Joseph hospital, referring to Pantoja by his nickname.


"He has the incredible ability to bring the best out in nurses and other health- care professionals by treating everyone as equals. He holds everyone accountable," said Stadnyk. "He's been instrumental in breaking down that hierarchy that doesn't always serve the patient well."


In addition to providing exemplary care to infants and their families, Pantoja, 56, has made a professional and personal commitment to serving Colorado's Hispanic community - especially immigrant families.

Dr. Alfonso Francisco Pantoja

Alfonso Pantoja made a commitment
to serve the Hispanic community.

"I know what it's like to be an immigrant and not knowing the language well, not being able to even cross the street out of fear and unfamiliarity. I've gone through the same process," he said.

"For me, it's a delight, and I feel it's my responsibility to help a Latino family who doesn't speak a word of English."


From a young age, Pantoja knew he wanted to be a doctor. A family doctor in his hometown of Tarma, about six hours from the capital of Lima, made a lasting impression on him with his bedside manner.

"I noticed his approach to patients and that stayed with me," Pantoja said.

Others would serve as role models, including a neonatologist named Jacinto Hernandez, who had spent some time in Denver.


"During my last year in Peru, I didn't know what kind of doctor to be. Neonatology had become an emerging field, and I knew then I wanted to become someone like him," Pantoja said.


After receiving a scholarship to attend a private Catholic school run by Vincentian priests, he enrolled in the National University of San Marcos in Lima.


Pantoja considered himself a "nerd" in school.

"I studied hard and got good grades," he recalled. "Although I was pre-med, I had some doubts because I was good in math and instructors would tell me that I should be an engineer."


Pantoja graduated from college in 1974. The Peruvian campus had not escaped the political and social turbulence of the late '60s and early '70s.


"There were lots of protests and strikes," he said. "I still have nightmares about not graduating from school because as a student, I was very politically involved. I'd attend marches and demonstrations in between classes."


The following year, Pantoja started his first internship and residency at the Jewish Hospital of Brooklyn, in one of New York's poorest neighborhoods.


In 1979, he decided he had enough command of the English language to apply for a fellowship in neonatology at Children's Hospital of Michigan at Wayne State University in Detroit. After two years, the timing was right for his next move.


"In 1981, I heard that Dr. Hernandez had moved back to Denver. Also, my wife was suffering from asthma and Denver had dry weather that was similar to Peru," he said.


During his tenure at St. Joseph, Pantoja has served on a number of committees and boards in his efforts to continually improve infant care, especially the survival rate of premature babies.


About 600 babies are admitted annually to the neonatal ICU at St. Joseph for specialized critical care.

Taking a team approach, Pantoja has helped to find new and better ways to care for these fragile babies.

"My role has been to educate, to give everyone involved the tools they need for better outcomes. Some of these strategies have been taken from industry, like Toyota and Nordstrom, where the focus is on the interaction of a client with a company," he said.


Pantoja also has been an advocate for improved access to quality care by poor and immigrant families, a controversial stance at a time when eliminating services to undocumented immigrants has become a priority for immigration reformers.


"I think everyone has a right to access health care. Immigrants are human beings and they are a part of this country, whether people like it or not, and they shouldn't be denied a fundamental service because of their status," he said.


Pantoja also is a strong advocate of mentors and role models for young Hispanics.

"It's absolutely essential to have somebody you can look up to, someone that you can say, 'If he can do it, why not me?' "


Copyright 2005, Rocky Mountain News. All Rights Reserved.

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