ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – During the coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Raul Pino has become a household name as one of the top medical leaders in Orange County. Before landing in Central Florida, however, Pino experienced a long and -- at times -- dangerous ride to success.
Pino was born and raised in the Cuban city of Ciego de Avila, which is located in the center of the island. His father rose to prominence as a Supreme Court judge for his province, and his mother raised the family.
As is the custom, Pino went away to boarding school at the age of 12, never to return home to live with his family again.
“It was great for my education, as a human being and as an individual,” he said. “I learned to live in groups, negotiate and also work because the first half of the day, I was working in the farms.”
[FULL INTERVIEW BELOW: Dr. Raul Pino discusses how he rose in the ranks of public health in the U.S.]
He said he also visited his grandmother at her rural home, and that is where he was first inspired my medicine.
Pino said his grandmother was a curandera, or a healer, for the community.
“I remember her diagnosing pregnancies, treating stomach aches, treating wounds, treating people for headaches or hiccups,” he said. “She would say that you’re having headaches because you have too much sun in your head. So, you’ve been exposed to the sun too much, and your head is hot. We need to cool it off. She would fold a towel, get a glass of water -- it had to be clear -- put the towel on top of the glass, invert it and then, put the towel with the glass of water on your head. You would see -- if you had sun in your head -- the water would bubble. If you didn’t have sun in your head, it would not bubble. She would do a couple praying things, and the water would disappear. The whole thing is fascinating.”
Pino went to medical school in Cuba and said that’s where he wanted to learn more about treating burn victims. The Cuban army was the only place offering that education, so he enlisted and was accepted into the program.
In Havana, Pino decided it was time to leave the country, so he tried to escape illegally with a group of people on a boat.
They were caught before they even departed.
“We’re about to leave, and we are going to leave by boat that night,” he said. “We lived in a very small town, and this lady came up, and said, ‘Raul, I want you to take my blood pressure.’ I said, Sandra, my ex-wife who is also a doctor, you can take it. She said, ‘No, no, no, no, I want you to take it.’ She was very persistent, and I said, ‘OK. Give me your right arm.’ In Cuba, we don’t take blood pressure on the left arm because it’s a little bit higher. She said, ‘No, take it on the left arm.’ I thought, ‘You’re a pain.’ She had a sweater. It was May. May is hot in Cuba. She took off the sweater, and that’s why she asked me on the left arm because she had written something (on her arm). She said, ‘Do not talk, be quiet, they are listening, do not leave, they are waiting for you.’ I almost had instant diarrhea. It was bad.”
Pino was arrested by Cuban authorities and was jailed for five days, where he said he was interrogated but wasn’t physically injured.
After his release, he was discharged from the army, and he had no job.
He said a friend told him about a program offered by the United States Embassy by which people who were kicked out of their jobs or were government dissenters could be relocated to the United States.
He said he applied and was moved to Connecticut.
In May 2020, Pino and his family relocated to Orlando, after which he became the Orange County medical officer for the Florida Department of Health.
He said being Hispanic and being a leader, he hopes to impart a lesson to the next generation.
“Despite the noise in the system and despite the rhetoric and how divided our country is, it’s still a place where someone like me can get to the position that I got,” he said. “It can be the same for anyone and any other Latino if we work hard enough. We don’t ask for it. We fight for it. We have to continue to earn our place in society as a member of the society here.”