PHYSICIAN SPOTLIGHT: Francisco Alberto Schwartz Fernandes, MD
Advanced Hand & Plastic Surgery Center
TAMPA - Alberto Francisco Schwartz Fernandes was barely 10 years old when he witnessed life’s most important lesson.
As he often did, Fernandes was tagging along with his father, Valentim, an orthopedics and spine surgeon at a hospital in Sao Paulo, Brazil. A patient coded and his father asked if Fernandes would like to watch as his colleagues tried to resuscitate him. He agreed and, “unfortunately the patient died,” Fernandes remembered.
But that was only the first part of what would become a watershed teaching moment that day.
“My father then took me to the OB/GYN ward and asked if I wanted to watch a labor and delivery,” he said. Standing near the woman’s head, Fernandes said, “I watched a woman giving birth. That day, my father taught me an important lesson – there is a beginning and an end.”
Fernandes said he “couldn’t really tell you if I was mature enough to understand it completely, but it did not traumatize me. It was just reality. And it was smart of Dad to do it.”
Fernandes had grown up accompanying his Dad to the hospital, and he and his younger brother often were left to amuse themselves in the staff lounge or vacant rooms. “He left us in the library once and we, being curious kids, opened a door and found a life-size plastic skeleton. My brother and I were so scared! We shut the door and hid under a table until Dad came back.”
But he kept going, and kept learning.
By the time he was in his teens, Fernandes had decided he wanted to be a physician, and probably a surgeon, like his Dad. But a power-tool mishap almost ended that dream. His family was renovating their home and while his parents had gone to purchase supplies, a bored 17-year-old Fernandes decided he would borrow a workman’s table saw to build a bookshelf. “I had never used a table saw before,” he said, “and as I was cutting I hit a knot in the plank.” The saw recoiled and his left hand was in the way. “I had partial amputations of my index, middle and ring fingers,” he said.
What Fernandes did next was a harbinger of the cool-in-a-crisis mindset that is the hallmark of the best physicians. “I went upstairs, awoke my 15-year-old brother and told him we had to go to the hospital. I wrapped my hand in a towel. They took me to an emergency facility, where they applied antibiotics, but I refused to let anyone touch my hand until my father could see it,” Fernandes said. In the meantime, he called his father and members of his father’s surgical team and told them he was taking an ambulance to the hospital. The ambulance driver did not know the way, so Fernandes, bandaged hand and all, gave him turn-by-turn directions. When he arrived, he admitted himself and awaited his father’s arrival. The surgical team reattached his fingers and, after several subsequent surgeries to repair and graph tendons, Fernandes was as good as new.
He carried that confidence as he entered Marilla Medical School in Sao Paulo, which he still calls some of his “best times,” and then completed an orthopedic residency at the Federal University of Sao Paulo, Paulista Medical School Hospital. A second residency followed, this one in hand and upper extremity surgery, at the Casa da Mao Hospital, also in Sao Paulo. Later, Fernandes returned to Federal University to earn a master’s degree in hand and microsurgery.
Eventually, Fernandes accepted an opportunity to come to the U.S. and become a fellow, and later a senior fellow, in hand and microsurgery at the prestigious Kleinert, Kutz & Associates Christine M Kleinert Institute, University of Louisville.
Fernandes returned to Brazil in 2003, where he planned to settle in for the long-term practicing with his father and his then father-in-law, and being an assistant professor at the university. However, a friend who was a fellow at the University of Louisville invited him to join a practice he was opening in Tampa. In 2005, Fernandes joined the Advanced Hand & Plastic Surgery Center with Scott Gargasz, MD, JD, and Luis Alfredo Laurentin-Perez, MD, PhD.
The entire team at Advanced Hand & Plastic Surgery Center are hand surgery sub-specialists. “Our gamut of patients is huge,” Fernandes said. “We do everything from hands to elbows. ... People whose fingers are crushed in a car door to people who have put their arm through a glass door,” he said. Fernandes said he is the go-to doctor for elbow and forearm fractures in his practice.
Fernandes, 43, is on several committees at Town and Country Hospital in Tampa, including being the surgeon at-large on the medical executive committee. “We are very participative” in the hospital, Fernandes said, and it “matches our backgrounds. We identify a lot with the Latin culture and the area is rich in that regard. (The hospital) opened a big door in the Latino community in Tampa for us, which allowed us to expand our business,” he said.
That expansion includes an office in Wesley Chapel, where he spends most of his time in the clinical office or at the New Tampa Surgery Center. There are a total of 14 employees in that office and the one on Habana Avenue near Town and Country.
Fernandes’ reputation at Town and Country Hospital is solid. John Pollard, director of Surgical Services, said Fernandes is a “pleasant surgeon” who makes “the surgical process run more efficiently and proficiently for our patients. The operating room, recovery, and outpatient services staff have all mentioned ... he is polite, respectful and courteous ... and teaches the staff.” Pollard added that Fernandes’ “bedside demeanor is excellent” and patients have called “to express thanks for their care.”
Fernandes said he comes naturally to his philosophy for patient care. “I learned how to be a doctor by observing my Dad. I saw how he dealt with his patients,” he said. “If I need to explain something 10 times I will do it ... until you really understand.” Fernandes and his patients work as a team, he said, “and their outcomes will be much better if they know I am there for them and care for them.”
Fernandes lives in Wesley Chapel with his wife Carmen Rodriguez, an investigator with the U.S. Department of Labor, their 21-month daughter, and his stepsons, ages 14 and 10. At least once a month he and his family volunteer at Grace Family Church in Lutz, where they do everything from organizing food pantries to making repairs at homes of in-need veterans.