Beloved doctors Roger and Elizabeth Velasquez retiring


Husband and wife Drs. Roger and Elizabeth Velasquez are retiring after many years at Southeastern Primary Care.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, December 12, 2012 at 4:09 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 12, 2012 at 4:09 p.m.

Their wide smiles seem synchronized, and they cut into each other’s sentences, as the cliche goes, as if they could finish them for each other.

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Husband and wife Drs. Roger and Elizabeth Velasquez are retiring after many years at Southeastern Primary Care.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun

But unlike most married couples, Drs. Roger and Elizabeth Velasquez, physicians at Gainesville’s Southeastern Primary Care, also spend most of their working hours together.

“We’ve been married as long as we’ve been practicing medicine,” Elizabeth said. And now, after nearly 40 years, the Velasquezes, both age 62 and born a month apart (he’s older), are retiring together at the end of the month.

“When our daughter was young, people used to ask her if she wanted to be a doctor like her mom and dad, and she said, ‘No, because I never see my mother or my father!’” said Elizabeth. “One of our motives for early retirement is to spend more time with our grandchildren.”

The Velazquezes will head south, to Miami, to be near their daughter, also Elizabeth, and her growing family in Fort Lauderdale.

Elizabeth and Roger met in 1970, as medical students in their native Nicaragua. Roger was studying ophthalmology and Elizabeth, internal medicine. They married four years later, and then moved to Miami to do a post-graduate course. The Sandinista Revolution was just starting, so they decided to stay in the U.S. and moved to New York City for more training. They ended up staying in the city for nearly a decade and then left for the little town of Keystone Heights in Florida. Opening their own practice in Melrose followed, and then they discovered Gainesville.

“There weren’t any movie theaters or restaurants there so people said to go to Gainesville. That’s how we started coming to Gainesville,” Roger said.

By the time they decided to move to Gainesville, the Velasquezes had a large following of patients in Melrose, Starke and Palatka who would travel to continue to be seen by them.

Jonnie Sue Kelley, 75, of Bell, has been seeing Elizabeth for about 15 years. Kelley’s mother was Elizabeth’s patient, and now Kelley’s whole family is cared for by Roger or Elizabeth.

Kelley recalls the first time she went to Elizabeth. “I was having a mild heart attack in her office and was trying to hide it. Dr. Elizabeth immediately took care of me, and sent me to a cardiologist, and several days later, I had open heart surgery,” Kelley said. “She’s very intelligent and likes to go to the heart of the matter.

“I’m not sure I’d be alive if it hadn’t been for her.”

Kelley said the personal touch is what distinguishes Elizabeth and Roger from other doctors.

“Last year I was in the hospital for Thanksgiving, and she even stopped by before her Thanksgiving dinner,” Kelley said. Another time that Kelley was in the hospital, Roger stopped by. “I can remember him saying to me, ‘We are praying for you.’ And that meant a lot to me.”

The Velasquezes are very religious, and many call them humble. They start every day with 7 a.m. Mass at Holy Faith Catholic Church near their clinic at 4343 Newberry Road.

“That’s where we get our strength to do long hours. We have to be grateful for everything we’ve done,” Elizabeth said.

That spirit of gratitude -- and service -- ultimately drives them. When they first moved to Florida and worked in the small towns, “we used to do almost everything: house calls, nursing homes,” Roger said. “We enjoyed all that and are grateful that we’ve been able to serve.”

Elizabeth said that she learned compassion from her father, also a physician.

“Growing up I remember there were people who couldn’t pay so when they got better they’d come back with eggs or a chicken,” Elizabeth said. “For me to be a physician is not just a profession. It’s a calling. I love what I do.”

Roger echoes that sentiment: “You don’t have to do great things in life … but small things with great love.”

That love comes out in how the Velasquezes care for their patients. “Their magic is in how caring they are with their patients. It sticks with patients, and they keep coming back,” said Dr. Clarisol Martinez, who will inherit some of the Velasquezes’ patients at Southeastern Primary Care. Importantly, many of those patients are native Spanish speakers with whom the Velasquezes have been able to communicate in their language. That’s something Martinez, originally from Puerto Rico, can continue.

“A person is not just a body, but a soul, and our effort is to see the whole person,” said Roger, who with his long fingers laced together and resting on his stomach, seems relaxed and patrician, where Elizabeth is quick to comment and tears up thinking about leaving her patients.

Elizabeth has focused mostly on women’s care, and Roger’s niche has been elder care. “Working with the elderly has helped me gain perspective in life and see where I’m going,” Roger said.

Between the two of them, the Velasquezes count more than 3,000 patients -- and many graduations, weddings and other life landmarks of their patients that they’ve shared over the years.

“I can’t tell you how many friends I’ve sent to (Elizabeth), and everyone has stayed with her,” Kelley said.

“The whole city of Gainesville and surrounding counties … everyone who has them as a patient is going to terribly miss them,” Kelley said.

- Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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