Luis: Doctor turned Maintenance Man
Updated: Feb 5, 2021
He was the hardest worker I have ever met and might have saved my wife
Photo Courtesy of Canva, by traceylyn
Luis arrived sweaty, pudgy, his tight short-sleeved maintenance uniform, soaked. He was out of breath. He removed his handkerchief from his front right pants pocket, paused as if about to perform a magic trick and snapped it open with his right wrist. He palmed it, wiped his brow and then patted down either side of his glistening face. Then he speedily wiped the back of his neck, tilting his head down momentarily, revealing thin threads of premature grey in his dark hair.
He carried the tools of his trade in each of his pockets, an Allen wrench peeked out of his front left pocket. As he loitered by my desk, a droplet of beaded sweat fell from his chin and nestled in the folds of the brand-new light grey industrial carpet underneath our feet.
He punctuated the series of movements by wiping his grease stained hands clean, folding the fabric back together quickly and stuffed it into his front pocket. He had just finished his first major task of the day in what seemed like record time if you were prone to measuring how swiftly and effectively this type of task could be done.
I was tempted. Luis was to maintenance what Michael Phelps was to Olympic swimming. The best, by a large margin.
When he smiled, you smiled. His mirthful eyes narrowed as he squeezed the features of his face into a mass of happy wrinkles. He walked briskly, everywhere. I rarely remember him walking casually to any destination. He moved with intention, speed and direction. He performed the work of a hundred men. His work ethic prods me to hyperbole.
“What’s next, boss? I finished organizing the storage closet with Ken’s ol’ furniture.” Luis rubbed his two hands together as if fomenting healing energy. We had fired a claims adjuster in Fresno and Luis had moved all the company owned Herman Miller pieces and other equipment into our tiny facility.
“You finished already?”
“Yes.” He pronounced the Y as if he were pronouncing the word Jell-O and elongated the rest of the syllable as if you knew he could not lie. “Jeesss.”
“I don’t know that I have anything urgent. Have you finished re-arranging the legal department’s new office?”
“Yes. I did that last week.” Smiling. Still, rubbing his hands.
“Really. You never cease to amaze me.” I smiled at him. “What about the supplies inventory? Wait.” I remembered that was finished as well. Still, he continued.
“Yes. But they asked me to come back when things slowed down here. Roberta has another request. I’ll go there.”
Luis sported a heavy Mexican accent, educated and elegant. His English was developing, but you could tell how precisely he tried to use words to convey their true meaning. Luis was always thinking. He would often pause, searching for the right word or phrase.
He was about to leave, which he did, not with a slow reckoning of his body, but as if he were about to catch a fleeting dream with his hands a few feet away. He would lunge forward, propelling himself into instantaneous motion. The permanent smile affixed to his face in authentic, unremitting joy.
“I want to ask you something. Its private.”
He paused a beat, anxious to begin his next task. His internal clock already ticking. He was happy to help but wanted to complete his work.
“Of course. How can I help you?”
Let’s go outside.
We worked in a 12-story office building in downtown Glendale on Brand boulevard. We worked on the tenth floor. On the ground floor, there was a small collection of patio furniture with umbrellas. We often ate lunch there. Now, we sat down to talk in relatively hushed tones about a serious matter.
I told Luis about my wife’s condition. She was intensely private and did not like to share challenges, conditions, anything outside of her immediate orbit. But she allowed me to talk to Luis about this topic. She and I were desperate.
Five months after she gave birth to our first child, she became desperately ill. Already tiny, she could not maintain her weight. Usually she hovered around 92 pounds, petite, but healthy for her 5’2” frame. Now, she weighed 88 pounds a 4% drop in her bodyweight. We had seen our doctor and a specialist. We had visited the emergency hospital. Our primary care physician did not see anything wrong with her. In fact, the doctor told her it was all in her head.
My wife responded to this statement with: the bleeding is in my head? Our doctor replied: you are causing it with your mind. I’m a big believer in causing outcomes with your mind, this was not a delusion.
Nevertheless, our doctor referred us to a specialist who acknowledged a problem, prescribed strong medication that did not work. The condition worsened. My wife felt the thick desperation of a young mother in deep distress.
Why would I talk to our maintenance man about a medical matter? Luis was a doctor. He earned his degree at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM), the oldest University in Mexico, established in 1551 as the Royal and Pontifical University. He had recently immigrated to the United States, and he had not yet taken the medical boards. Luis took the only job he could find given his newness to the country and poor English. If he viewed this new line of work with disdain, it did not show. He attacked this job with energy, humility and joy.
In Mexico, Luis had not only practiced internal medicine, but had worked as a researcher for pharmaceutical companies, like Becton Dickinson. We talked about his work. He raved about naproxen sodium; words he would say in slowly evolving English to make sure he got it right.
While born in the states, my wife had spent her formative years in Guadalajara, Mexico and was comfortable with Luis evaluating her condition. He agreed to come visit after work if she could wait.
When Luis arrived at our modest townhome a few miles from our office, he had taken a shower and changed clothes. His bearing was now altogether different. Although brisk, Dr. Luis Garcia Hernandez of Puebla, Mexico walked into our home as humble as anytime I had seen him, but with an air of peace and purpose I had not previously detected.
He bowed to me slightly upon entering the home and asked where he could wash his hands. After he finished, he walked to where Esther was seated on the couch a short distance from the entrance and knelt on one knee as he placed his bag on the beige carpet, opened it and retrieved his stethoscope. He greeted Esther in Spanish, knowing I could somewhat understand the conversation.
He gathered the stethoscope around his neck and proceeded to examine my wife. He placed his right hand on her abdomen, and continuing in Spanish, asked her a series of questions while he moved his hand from area to area, gently probing. He then looked up at Esther, smiled knowingly and told her she had a parasite. This news caused a weary sigh of relief to escape from my wife. Finally, her suspicions were confirmed. He checked her heart. She was fine.
That same evening Luis and I drove the two- and half-hour trip down Interstate Five directly across the U.S. Mexico border into Tijuana. We collected medicine that once Esther took, resolved her symptoms within days. We were beyond grateful and relieved.
Weeks later, weakness still lingering, Esther invited Luis and his wife to dinner. We ate pozole, a delicious Mexican pork stew with hominy, garnished with radishes, shreds of cabbage, chile de arbol and limes.
We enjoyed a good meal, and conversation, learning about our different backgrounds, paths in life, families and interests. Luis’ wife, Angelica, was a dentist.
I knew Luis had spent the better part of his life as a doctor in Mexico when I hired him. He had not boasted of his healing hands but mentioned his work objectively and plainly. What had impressed me about him involved his superhuman work ethic and selflessness. He never mentioned to anyone else at work his background, never asked to be called Doctor, to him that would appear manifestly ridiculous.
Having seen him in action, I perceived a dimension to his character I had not witnessed before. I would playfully call him, “Doc” or “El Doctor” from time to time. He always waived off the designation with a smile and a slight wag of his right index finger. “Here, I am not a doctor”, he would say, again with a broad smile that pushed his eyes together. “Here, I am a maintenance mechanic. And, like you say, a fery good one. I’m happy for this job.”
Luis worked with us for nearly a year when he took a similar job in our regional office in Fountain Valley. Over the years, we lost track of one another. I have often mentioned him in stories told in large gatherings or staff meetings, about pure joy, hard work and focus.
What struck me most, beyond his selflessness, humility and unrelenting work ethic was how he threw his energy into every task. Luis immersed himself, in fact, lost himself, in the moment of his work. His genius shone in his ability to only see the present task and approach it with determination and joy. No task, large or small, complicated or simple was beneath him.