Member Spotlight: Dr. Federico Montero
January 27th, 2018
Dr. Federico Montero attended medical school at Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara and Universidad de Costa Rica. His medical internship was interrupted by a motor vehicle accident resulting in a spinal cord injury (SCI). Subsequently, he changed his plans from becoming a pediatric surgeon to specializing in SCI. He underwent postgraduate training at the National Spinal Injury Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Rivermead Rehabilitation Centre and University of Costa Rica. His career highlights include Coordinator of the World Health Organization [WHO] Disability and Rehabilitation Team; and Director General, National Rehabilitation Center, Costa Rica. He was a member of the Editorial Committee of the journal Paraplegia (now Spinal Cord). Currently, he is teaching in the postgraduate training program in physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) at the University of Costa Rica. He is also currently the President of the Red de Organizaciones de Personas con Discapacidad de Centro América y el Caribe (REDODICEC, http://www.redodicec.org).
How did you become involved with ISCoS (formerly IMSoP, the International Medical Society of Paraplegia)?
Soon after my injury, I considered the fact that the rehabilitation offered and expectations for a person with SCI at that time in Costa Rica were not very favorable. Thanks to the help of my cousin, a physician working in Phoenix, Arizona, who found out about a good option there, and with my parents’ support, I was able to travel and be admitted to the SCI unit at Good Samaritan Hospital. It was there where I had my first contact with IMSoP. Invited by Dr. John Young, the Director of the SCI unit, I was able to attend a scientific meeting on SCI organized in that city, while I was still a SCI patient. On my return to Costa Rica, I worked as a general doctor for about a year, then managed to get a scholarship through the British Council to initiate my SCI training at the National Spinal Injuries Centre, Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the UK. During my time spent at Stoke Mandeville and working closely with Dr. Hans Frankel, I had the opportunity to attend various scientific meetings and meet well respected people in the field of SCI medicine, including many members of IMSoP.
What improvements in the care and lives of persons with SCI in Costa Rica have you seen over the years?
After my training in the UK, I returned to work at the National Rehabilitation Center in Costa Rica, which had recently opened its doors to inpatients. All patients with SCI who were admitted to the general hospitals were later transferred to the Rehabilitation Center. Most of these patients had all sorts of complications. Most persons with tetraplegia, in fact, died during their general hospitalization before transfer to the Rehabilitation Center, while others died at the Rehabilitation Center due to these severe complications. This situation provided me with the opportunity to rapidly organize a small SCI unit, staffed with personnel properly trained for the comprehensive management of patients with SCI. Subsequently, all patients with SCI admitted to other hospitals were sent to our unit and the development of complications reduced significantly, including a 0% incidence of pressure sores. Currently, despite the fact that the Costa Rican health system is very good, there are significant limitations in providing patients with the required assistive devices and resources for neurogenic bladder management. Nonetheless, the unit has strengthened, and most patients return to their homes fully rehabilitated. Many continue to follow up in the outpatient clinic. Unfortunately, sometimes complications appear, due to poverty and all its consequences.
What do you wish other physicians and health care providers in your experience knew about SCI medicine that they do not seem to understand?
This represents a very frustrating reality within the medical field. Despite the fact that Costa Rica has a very inclusive health system, as well as high quality and dedicated health professionals, knowledge about proper SCI care is still limited, even amongst many specialists. Most patients with either traumatic or non-traumatic SCI are well managed during the very acute stage, but not so much afterwards if they have to remain in the general hospitals. So, I wish that the specialists working with those patients could be more aware of at least the relevant pathophysiology of SCI, as well as the potential complications associated with these injuries. At the least, nurses should be properly trained in the prevention of pressure sores, proper positioning and proper bladder management.
Please tell us about your most memorable encounter with a patient.
When I first arrived at the SCI unit in Phoenix, my English was not very good. The nurses put me in contact through the telephone with another patient who spoke Spanish to translate. I must say that there was not much that I could understand from this gentle Mexican-American fellow, but his explanations relaxed the nurses enough to proceed with their routines on the recently graduated young doctor. I met the Mexican-American fellow personally the next day and we became very good friends. He had a long-standing SCI and was in hospital due to pressure sores. He used to work in construction before his injury, and lived in Yuma, Arizona. This great and easygoing man, who weighed more than 300 pounds those days, provided me with the information and support I needed at the time. He saved me a lot of money I would’ve had to pay for consultations with a psychologist.
What professional and personal accomplishments are you most proud of?
When I got married, Dr. John Young, who was the Director of the SCI unit at Good Samaritan Hospital, where I was treated after my injury, gave me Sir Ludwig Guttmann’s textbook as a wedding present. In the book, he wrote, “…it has been a privilege and joy to know you. I have no doubt you are destined to follow the lead of Sir Ludwig bringing health and pride to your paralyzed countrymen.” Despite the fact that I did not have all the resources I would have liked in order to do my job better, to provide patients with all the resources they need and deserve, I think that Dr. Young wouldn’t feel disappointed.
What differences have you seen in the care and lives of persons with disability in the developed world versus the developing world?
I have had the opportunity to personally undergo the rehabilitation process in a developed country, and participate in various activities in the USA, UK and others. This has helped me to understand the situation of people with disabilities in developed countries. As a person with a disability myself, working in Latin America, a region where social and economic differences are so visible, and in a public hospital, I have also been quite exposed to the reality of people with disabilities in developing countries. More recently, I had the opportunity to work for the WHO in Geneva for almost 5 years, where I traveled to many countries in Africa. I went to rural areas and met people with disabilities, and my knowledge and understanding about the situation of people in developing countries deepened even more. I have seen large gaps in the care and lives of persons with disability throughout the world, and even within the same country.
What keeps you busy these days?
I am currently retired from regular hospital work, but continue as a member of the Post-Graduate Committee on Medical Rehabilitation at the University of Costa Rica. I am in charge of the SCI course for the PM&R residents. I am also collaborating with ISCoS to improve access to information and promote knowledge of SCI in the Latin American and Caribbean Regions. In this respect, we have already carried out activities in Guatemala and Honduras in 2017. We have plans to be in Uruguay this March, and possibly Ecuador in October. With the help of a Costa Rican translator and other Latin American colleagues, we have translated the ISCoS eLearn SCI modules into Spanish. I also support some PAHO [Pan American Health Organization] and WHO activities in the region and I am currently the President of a regional network of Organizations of People with Disabilities called REDODICEC. So, my sociopolitical involvement for the rights of people with disabilities also keeps me quite busy in my country and regionally. I also enjoy a piece of land in the countryside in a small town called San Mateo.
Do you have any advice for those starting out in SCI medicine or rehabilitation medicine in general?
The specialty is one of the most complex and, at the same time, a rewarding one. We work with a population, although truly more empowered over the last 30 years, still is one of the most segregated, with no access to basic needs and services in many parts of the world. Rehabilitation, as well as SCI medicine, require deep knowledge and understanding of many other areas of medicine. Our field goes beyond many other specialties, however, because of the struggle of the people we work for, which goes beyond the rehabilitation process. We may provide them with the first tools for recovery, but the specialty also commits us to be allies of our patients and of all people with disabilities, in their struggle for a life with dignity and enjoyment of all human rights.
Who is the person(s) you would most like to thank and why?
My wife, who unfortunately died not many years after we married, and my son, who was born in England during my training. They both inspired me to work and study very hard during my training in SCI. My wife, a nurse, accompanied and helped me in the development of the SCI unit in Costa Rica and the training of personnel. My son continues to provide me with satisfaction and happiness!!