Hispanic Heritage Month: Honoring Public Health Trailblazer Dr. Fernando Guerra
By Ben Wiese
SAN ANTONIO –– Dr. Fernando Guerra’s lifelong devotion to helping the underserved, the homeless and the most vulnerable in society remains the defining trait of his impact on the city of San Antonio.
Even after his passing in January 2022, his legacy remains strong through A Fund for Public Health at the San Antonio Area Foundation, a donor-advised fund that is being converted to a scholarship fund to support students pursuing careers in medicine.
The Area Foundation is proud that Dr. Guerra and his family entrusted our organization to serve as steward of his philanthropic fund and we honor his legacy during National Hispanic Heritage Month.
“I have never met such a distinguished person who was so humble,” said Jennifer Ballesteros, the Area Foundation’s Director of Scholarship Programs, who worked with Dr. Guerra for seven years. “He was such a genuine being who had much more concern for the community and the good that would come from his fund than himself.”
Guerra’s inherent kindness and generosity were already on full display as early as his teenage years. Preceded by his father, Fernando Guerra Sr., in the medical world and surrounded by family members that championed the value of others, Guerra possessed an innate capacity to love and serve.
“While growing up together, I always found him to be someone that treated me really well,” said Father David Garcia, Dr. Guerra’s cousin and well-known community leader who retired as a priest with the Archdiocese of San Antonio. “He was consistently very kind, wore a big smile and incredibly helpful. I remain so impressed with the person he grew up to be and how committed he was to helping people.”
After receiving his degree from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston in 1964, Dr. Guerra entered the medical field intent on working in pediatrics –– a mission that would last his entire career. But upon being drafted into the Vietnam War as a battalion surgeon, he saw potential to be both pediatrician and positive figure in the realm of public health.
Noticed by former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, Dr. Guerra was approached in 1987 to oversee public health in the city ahead of Pope John Paul II’s visit. Following the event’s success, Guerra went on to be the Director of the Metropolitan Health District for 23 years. But even during his tenure, Guerra maintained resolute in his commitment to his pediatric practice.
“When he took on that role, my father still maintained his pediatrics practice. He even made that one of the prerequisites,” said Roberto Guerra, 49, one of Dr. Guerra’s six children who currently lives in Arizona. “He wanted to remain in touch with the communities he was there to serve.”
Dr. Guerra addressed historic trials and tragedies as public health crises: San Antonio’s response to the AIDS epidemic, helping the homeless population and circumventing the widespread lack of affordable healthcare.
“Dr. Guerra dramatically upgraded all the basic public health functions: immunizations, vaccines, care of infants, food inspections and animal control,” Cisneros recalled. “And to his everlasting credit – and to the benefit of millions of people across the nation – he highlighted the intersection of poverty and teenage pregnancy; he pointed out glaring health disparities; and he advanced preventative approaches to gang violence.”
As incessantly busy as he was, Dr. Guerra never missed a step as dedicated husband to his wife of nearly four decades, Beverly Purcell-Guerra.
“My Fernando was so interested in helping people –– and what he was most particularly interested in was helping those who didn’t have or couldn’t have access to healthcare and were desperately in need,” Purcell-Guerra shared. “It was such an interesting life and marriage that I had with Fernando. Me and my family have so many wonderful memories with him.”
Interested in opening up a philanthropic fund of your own at the Area Foundation? It’s easy. Click here to get more information.
Ben Wiese is a San Antonio-based freelance writer and member of the San Antonio Area Foundation’s Storytelling Ambassador contributor network.