Dr. Ambrosio Hernandez has one mode of operating – accelerated. He speaks quickly, he walks swiftly, and he acts fast. A few minutes with him, and it is clear that this man means business. Since the day he took office as City of Pharr Mayor in May 2015, he has made a fast and furious impression. He began a series of moves that would transform a border community into an efficiently operating governmental entity. The City of Pharr is a vibrant and predominantly Mexican-American cultured border community, with a strong economy and the prideful ownership of a major international commercial port of entry. Hernandez is a man on a mission – to fast-track his hometown into a progressive transnational influencer in the local, state, national, and international arenas, while improving the quality of life for its residents as
“I know the potential that Pharr has, and what it can be,” he says. “We have made great strides to move Pharr forward, to push Pharr to the forefront of the conversation when it comes to business development, transportation, and international issues, to name a few,” he continued.
“We are putting Pharr on the map, and we are getting things done,” he added.
At the same time that he serves as a public servant in his community, Hernandez is also major player in the field of healthcare in South Texas. For over 11 years, he has served as Medical Director of Surgical Services in the Rio Grande Valley for Driscoll Children’s Hospital, and also holds leadership positions at Doctor’s Hospital at Renaissance, where he serves as Chief Medical Compliance Officer, head of Nursing Education, and also runs a respected bariatric clinic.
Every day, Hernandez makes an impact on the lives of South Texas children and families, either in the operating room, in his clinic, or in City Hall.
When he ran for office, Hernandez was met with some skepticism – What does a doctor know about running a city? When will he find the time? What are his true motives? Hernandez remained adamant that he would lead Pharr with his same experience as a clinical manager and administrator, his innovative ideas, and his tenacious attitude. While it seems unlikely that a professional in the medical field would choose to become a public servant, Texas Municipal League (TML) Executive Director Bennett Sandlin notes, “It’s not surprising to find Texas mayors with diverse backgrounds, from surgeons to pilots to folk singers.”
“Texas city officials come from a variety of backgrounds and should be admired for the donation of their time to public service,” he added.
This is a day in the life of Dr. Ambrosio Hernandez, pediatric surgeon, bariatric surgeon, public servant, and Mayor of Pharr.
Hernandez is an early riser. He typically wakes at 6 am each morning, earlier on days he has morning surgeries scheduled. Today, Hernandez has no morning surgeries, so he has time to enjoy a light breakfast at the home he shares with his wife Cristina, their son Joseph, 10, and Cristina’s parents, Gavino and Rafaela. Hernandez and Cristina were high school sweethearts, and have been married for 20 years.
Dressed in his signature light blue scrubs, Hernandez leaves the house for clinic at Driscoll Children’s Surgical Specialty Clinic in McAllen, about a mile from his home. After graduating from University of Michigan medical school and a residency in Galveston, Hernandez began his career in the field of pediatric surgery in 2002. He trained at one of the best programs in the nation, and had his choice to practice anywhere in the country. He chose to return to Pharr in 2004 because he wanted to provide local families whose children needed surgery with the opportunity to have access to high quality care without having to leave the Rio Grande Valley or being separated from their families.
Hernandez is making his rounds at his Driscoll clinic. It is a cool, damp morning, and parents shuffle bundled children, strollers, and diaper bags from the waiting room to the examination rooms. Driscoll’s specialty clinic waiting area sports pastel painted walls, comfortable cushioned seating, and a friendly, inviting staff. At clinic, Hernandez sees pediatric patients, ages 0-18 years, with a myriad of ailments requiring surgical attention and care. Cases range from as simple as an infant circumcision (a procedure that typically lasts an average of seven minutes to perform), to as complicated as liver or lung tumor resection that may sometimes require additional procedures.
As he enters the examination room for his next consultation, Hernandez turns to his nurse and points to the clock. “I have to be somewhere at 10 am for a few minutes and then I’ll come right back,” he announces.
For someone so typically fast-paced, Hernandez delivers a warm, attentive, and compassionate bedside manner to his young patients and their often-frightened parents. His usual demeanor softens as he breaks a smile while cracking a joke with the young mother of a 3-week-old newborn boy. As she helps to undress the baby for Hernandez to examine for a possible surgery, the mother tells Hernandez that this is her first son. “Sí es,” Hernandez remarks in Spanish. “Yes, he is.”
“Sí lo necesita?” she anxiously asks – “Does he need the surgery?”
“Sí es varón,” he says – “Yes, he is a boy,” he confirms.
They laugh at the play on words, and the exchange has left the young mother noticeably at ease. Hernandez gives her options for treatment, which they discuss for a few minutes, and he excuses himself as he leaves the room to schedule the surgery. The young mother and her son are not only his patients; they are also his constituents – Pharr residents.
We rush out of the office, down the staircase, to the physician’s side entrance of the clinic. It is hard to keep up with his pace. We pile into his black Toyota Tundra, and head across town to a ribbon cutting ceremony for a new business in Pharr.
On the way, Hernandez takes and makes calls, always working. During a break from business, I ask him about how he has adjusted to his new role as Mayor since taking office in May. He thinks about it, shakes his head and says that he has not had to make many major changes to his schedule to accommodate city business. “I just make time for the additional meetings,” he says.
He elaborates. When he and his newly elected colleagues took office, they swiftly moved to make good on campaign promises of greater accountability in city government. The council injected new leadership into the city management and major departments, and set directives and high expectations. The council removed itself from being involved in day-to-day operations, and instead delegated responsibility to the city manager to carry out policy directives approved by the city council. “It’s easy to manage city government when we have the right people in place to implement our leadership directives,” he added.
We arrive at Skyline Academy for the ribbon cutting ceremony. Skyline Academy is the “first childcare facility in the Rio Grande Valley specializing in early speech and language development,” according to the invitation to the ceremony. The Pharr Economic Development Corporation has laid out the red carpet and ceremonial ribbon in front of a gathering of approximately 20 individuals. Hernandez is greeted warmly by former Pharr mayor Leopoldo “Polo” Palacios, who has been Hernandez’s mentor for years. The Academy is owned by Ben and Amy Palacios Peña, both longtime professionals in the field of Speech Language Pathology.
As he takes the microphone, Hernandez congratulates the Peñas on the opening of their facility. He has no difficulty switching hats from surgeon to mayor, and even though he is still dressed in his medical scrubs, his demeanor has shifted from his calm bedside manner to that of a seasoned politician, using this opportunity to promote business development in Pharr.
“Pharr is open for business, and I am excited that you chose to open your facility here in Pharr – the best place to live, work and play,” he remarked. “I thank you for your dedication to contribute to the city not only in terms of property and sales tax revenue, but for your contribution to the health and wellness of Pharr families, especially, young children,” Hernandez added.
After a break for lunch, we meet at DHR Emergency Room and are walked by security to Pre-Op, where we are dressed in “bunny suits,” white sterile jumpsuits, and led to the operating room. Hospital staff is prepping the room and patient for surgery, and we meet Hernandez outside the room. They are not ready for him, and he is forced to sit and wait. For Hernandez, waiting is not something he is accustomed to doing, but he is never not working – as he waits, he works. He scrolls through his phone, and shows me what he is doing – he is reviewing a task management software application that his Pharr management team uses to collaborate on projects. Hernandez uses it to keep track of his task assignments, responsibilities, and deadlines. He shows me his assigned list, which is filled with tasks that have been struck through and very few left pending. “I know that I have done what I’m supposed to do, and if a project is stuck somewhere, I can see exactly why it is pending and who is responsible,” he explains. “When I have down time, I knock things off my list. It’s very efficient,” he added.
The operating room is ready for Hernandez. We file in behind him, with instructions to stay at least 3 feet away from anything in blue, which is sterile. Hernandez and the surgical team move like a well-oiled machine. The room is brightly lit, and rock music is playing over the sound system – energetic, but not too loud. Two large monitors flank the patient; the surgery is endoscopic and will be done via scopes through small incisions on the body. The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” begins to play, and the medical staff dims the lights. Hernandez takes the helm, like a captain directing a ship, giving instructions while navigating the surgery using the cameras on the monitors. It is amazing to witness the hands that were just minutes before striking items off a city business to-do list on a smartphone, now delicately performing life-altering surgery on a patient. Impacting lives, in his city, and in the operating room.
We are now at city hall, and Hernandez, still sporting his blue surgical scrubs, takes his place at the dais to oversee a series of back-to-back meetings, beginning with the Pharr City Council meeting. Hernandez is extremely punctual, and begins the meeting right at 5:00 pm. With the large city seal directly overhead, and the meeting room decked in festive holiday décor, Hernandez runs down the meeting agendas with the same swift precision and efficiency we have seen in him all day.
City Manager Juan Guerra sits to his right, and is Hernandez and the city council’s literal right-hand man who was tapped to oversee the daily operations of the city. Since taking over as city manager, Guerra has successfully implemented many leadership directives issued by the City Council. A former United States Marine, Guerra fits in nicely with Hernandez’s efficient leadership style.
“Due to the rapid growth of the City, the City was in need of a change in culture in order to grow in an effective manner and to responsibly take care of the businesses and citizens of Pharr. This change of culture could only come from the strong leadership of a Mayor, and Dr. Hernandez is the right mayor for the right time in Pharr’s history,” states Guerra.
“We are currently changing the culture of Pharr into a professional and accountable one, while raising the expectations of all city employees. This will improve the level of service that we
provide to our community and will also ensure that we respect taxpayer funds at all times,” he continues.
The day Hernandez was sworn into office, he took his new place and led his first meeting as Mayor. During that first meeting, Hernandez placed several items on the agenda for consideration which were bold moves of major reform in City Hall. The new commission made good on promises Hernandez had made on the campaign trail, including lowering property tax rate and utility rates for residents. In December, the commission awarded its first grants under the utility relief program for disadvantaged households.
Hernandez and his colleagues take action on agendas for four consecutive meetings, with Hernandez pounding the gavel to adjourn in record time – less than an hour.
It has been a long day, but not for Hernandez. This is a typical day for him. He will head home, finish up returning phone calls, have dinner with his family, and head to bed. Tomorrow is a new day, with more business to conduct, more tasks to knock out, and more lives to save.
In his first seven months in office, Hernandez has definitely proved himself a leader who gets things done. He has naturally transitioned from pediatric surgeon to seasoned politician, and Pharr residents will undoubtedly benefit from laser focus Hernandez has on improving his hometown.