There are two Richard Izquierdos that Bronx locals recognize. One man, Richard Izquierdo Arroyo, made headlines last year when he was charged with embezzling more than $100,000 from a non-profit low-income housing organization. The other, Richard Izquierdo, known as the “Doc,” is a man who walks with a cane and often plays with his iPhone. He is a pediatrician who founded two health centers in the borough and is now hoping to heal a new generation with The Dr. Richard Izquierdo Health & Science Charter School that opened this fall.
With that resume, Izquierdo–the doctor–doesn’t worry that Bronx residents will confuse him with the other Izquierdo.
Richard Izquierdo was nicknamed Doc because he’s been a pediatrician in the Bronx since 1962, with now-famous patients like U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona, Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr., and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Trained at the University of Madrid Medical School and the University of Lausanne Medical School in Switzerland, Izquierdo founded a Hunts Point-based bilingual public health center, Urban Health Plan (UHP), now run by his daughter, Paloma Hernandez, and his private clinic, Multi Medic Physician Services, run by his son, Richard. He has chaired the local Community Board and has won many recognition awards from Bronx organizations.
He recently turned 81 and still goes to friends’ homes to perform minor procedures like applying butterfly closures or giving injections, but what he’s most excited about is his new job as chairman of the Dr. Richard Izquierdo Health & Science Charter School in Morrisania. “I live from dream to dream, mountaintop to mountaintop,” said Izquierdo. “I’m a salesman. I sell dreams and then make them come true.”
After the Board of Education denied two requests to open the school because the health and science theme had to be more integrated into the curriculum, Izquierdo teamed up with John Xavier, who wanted to start his own health care school. Xavier gave up that plan and is now the principal of the school, which received a start-up grant from the Walton Family Foundation.
“The school wouldn’t be what it is without him,” said Xavier. “It’s a long, complicated name for a school but every word in that name is essential to what we’re doing. The more I know Izquierdo, the more important it is to me that this school becomes his legacy.”
The 100 sixth grade students (according to Izquierdo, there were a few more enrolled at the beginning that ended up not showing up or moved out) are each given an iPad (which they keep at the school), chess and fencing classes, and instruction on capoeira, the Brazilian no-contact martial art. Starting in January, the students will have to build a science project of vertical plants to study how photosynthesis works, which Izquierdo hopes will help educate them to care about their environment. In keeping with the medical theme, students must wear scrubs (“I don’t do things in a small way,” said Izquierdo). Their science classes run for 90 minutes as opposed to the typical 45 so the students can have an accelerated science instruction that will more readily prepare them to pursue further education or find employment. They will be certified as Emergency Medical Technicians by the time they graduate and, if the school is successful in its mission, their chances of landing a job will be higher than most in the Bronx, which has a daunting 12.5 percent unemployment rate, the highest in the New York metropolitan area.
Not long after school started, Izquierdo chatted with 11-year old Shailoh Cervantes, a student who addressed the school at orientation and who hopes to become a doctor one day. Izquierdo reminded Cervantes of what he said during orientation:
“There are three important things: One, that we were going to give you an education so that you could make a living,” said Izquierdo. ”The second was to be proud of who you are, of your name; and the last one was to make this place a better world to live in and to help other people. Do you remember that?”
“Yeah, I remember that,” said Cervantes. “I think that what you said should help us throughout our lives so that we can have a better life. My dream is to become a famous doctor, that people would remember my name for helping a lot of other people.”
The school received a grant from the Charter School Center, a non-profit organization that helps start charter schools, to hire an award-winning documentary filmmaker, Antonio Ferrera, to record the students as they develop throughout the year. The administration’s hope is that the school can then look back and observe their work objectively and learn from their mistakes. “Nobody’s paying attention to the South Bronx but Izquierdo is making sure there’s a new generation of children that are paying attention to it,” said Ferrera.
Izquierdo wants to develop programs in first aid and health literacy, and try out different curricula to see if an increase in exercise classes will result in higher performance and weight loss. He wants to battle the Bronx’s obesity problem (47 percent of kids are overweight) starting with these students.
“We let the students know what’s expected of them and what they can expect from us,” said Izquierdo. “I call it the CPR of relationships: Consistent, Predictable and Reliable. Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation. CPR.”
Izquierdo has a strip of white mustache cut in a way that appears to pay homage to his Puerto Rican heritage–a perfectly straight and trimmed line. Though his family is Puerto Rican, Izquierdo was raised in New York City. At 14, he used to sneak into the city’s hottest night clubs because he already had a little bit of this mustache–just enough that he would get away with it–and so he got to know many Latin legends like Noro Morales and Machito. His phrases are interspersed with Spanish sayings like, “Dios los cría y ellos se juntan” (“God creates them and they unite”) and he loves typical Puerto Rican dishes such as rice and beans and plantains. He claims that his salsa moves are still so good that a couple of months before the Urban Health Plan’s annual Christmas party, “The young ladies would say, ‘I want to be on your card.’ ”
“He’s not just always been a medical doctor,” said Jessie Harris, a Bronx Community Board member and book distributor who has known him for 25 years. “He’s also a community doctor. He’s been one man I’ve known whose had goals and reached them–medically, socially and academically.”
Izquierdo’s medical legacy lives on: his daughter and son have taken over the management of the health care businesses he started and he hopes the Health & Science Charter School will help young Bronxites follow in his steps. But Izquierdo is already working on his next dream as a “community doctor.” He’s planning to buy what used to be his father’s bodega and convert it into a green grocery store with health education classes and a salad bar offering hearty meals.
It’s all part of his longevity strategy, he said: “I’m bribing God because if I’m busy with projects, he can’t take me away.”