By Lizette Toro - September 11, 2023
Leo Martinez never dreamed of leaving his family and his home in Havana. He was married. His passion for taking care of people led him to become a family practice physician. Everything he loved was in Cuba.
However, even as a doctor, Martinez earned $25 per month.
“I didn’t have food to put on my table or electricity in my house,” Martinez said. “It was sad that as a family practice doctor, I had to rely on my patients to bring me food to eat because I didn’t make any money.”
Martinez also faced challenges with caring for his patients. Medications were scarce. When he had antibiotics, he didn’t have enough to give a full dose.
“We mixed and matched medications hoping the patient didn’t get worse. It was very challenging,” Martinez said.
Leaving the Island
In 1994, Martinez’s brother fled the communist nation and tried to convince him to join, but he was not ready to leave his patients.
“I thought he was crazy,” Martinez recalled. “I couldn’t go to the country where I didn’t know the language. I had my medical license and I wanted to continue my practice helping those in need.”
But the lack of freedom in Cuba ultimately led to his decision to leave the island. In 2001, after several failed attempts to escape, he and his wife, alongside 18 strangers, braved the straits of Florida on a makeshift raft. Martinez was 35 years old.
“It was a rough time on the boat when we were in the water,” Martinez shared. “There were many times when we thought we wouldn’t survive.”
But survive they did, arriving in Key West wet and cold from their trip. The group was transported to an immigrant detention center in Miami. He spent two days in South Florida before his brother brought him to Tampa where he’s lived ever since.
20 Years at Moffitt
When he first came to the Tampa Bay area, he worked several odd jobs to make ends meet.
“One day, I saw an ad for Moffitt Cancer Center in the newspaper,” Martinez recalled. “I applied for a job and was surprised to get hired as a medical assistant in April 2003.”
He started his career at the cancer center as an oncology tech on 3 North. Even though he was a physician in Cuba, he could not transfer his practice to the U.S. He sent his school paperwork to Tallahassee for review, and they granted him his nursing license to practice in Florida in 2004. His manager on 3 North then hired him on as a registered nurse.
Martinez recently celebrated his 20th anniversary as a Moffitt team member. He’s worked as an inpatient nurse at the Magnolia campus, and as an outpatient nurse at Moffitt International Plaza and Moffitt at Wesley Chapel.
“Nursing was challenging for me at Moffitt because of the language barrier and because of the new technology, ample supplies and medications,” Martinez said. “We did not have any of that in Cuba.”
Today, Martinez is a United States citizen. It’s been 22 years since he left his homeland, but he is very grateful to be living the American dream.
“I never thought I would have so many opportunities and so much improvement in my life,” Martinez said. “My favorite part about working at Moffitt is the team. They aren’t just my coworkers; they are my family. We give patients top quality care. We give them hope. We are here to save lives.”