Thankful: Weld County doctor gave back with service to country, medicine | MyWindsorNow.com

Thankful: Weld County doctor gave back with service to country, medicine

Kelly Ragan | kragan@greeleytribune.com

When Diego Freitas's family came to visit from Argentina, he asked what they wanted to see. Disney World? Mount Rushmore? The mountains?

Nope. They wanted to see the supermarket.

They wanted to see with their own eyes how much freedom and opportunity there was in America, and the store was a great example. They wanted to see rows of shiny red apples and sprawling piles of yellow bananas. They wanted to see the stiff leaves shoot out of a prickly pineapple's crown. They wanted the opportunity to buy whatever they wanted.

"Seeing the choices blows their mind," Freitas said. "They're used to standing three hours in line for whatever they can get.

"A lot of things we take for granted here are dreams in other countries."

Even now, with nearly 40 years as an internal medicine specialist under his belt, Freitas is amazed at all the opportunity. He feels blessed to live in America. He knows what life could have been like if his father didn't have faith in that possibility.

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Giving back to the country that gave him so much was one of the driving forces behind his choice to join the U.S. Air Force. The chance to fly fast and loud didn't hurt, either.

When he joined the Air Force, he remembers most of his high school buddies were angry about the Vietnam War. They called him a lot of interesting things, he said. But that didn't stop him from wanting to serve his country. He remembered some of the advice his father gave in him.

"Regardless of what people think of you, do what you know is right," Freitas said. "This country gave me so much, I wanted to give back. Doing what's right is often unpopular."

Because of his father, he's now an internal medicine specialist with Banner Health in Johnstown. He's grateful for that as well.

When he was 9, Freitas' father decided to head to America, the land of opportunity, because he saw his own opportunity: His father was a board certified veterinarian in Argentina, and the U.S. needed more vets. His father was a certified veterinarian surgeon, Freitas said.

Yet getting the permission to practice was a long process, and it wasn't easy. It took five years working somewhere, anywhere, before he could get his citizenship. And he couldn't work as a vet because he wasn't a citizen.

At first, Freitas watched as his father bussed tables to feed the family.

"I never would have had the courage to do what he did," Freitas said.

The risk paid off. His father eventually worked for the Food and Drug Administration and later for a lab that maintained animals, he said. Once he got his citizenship, he opened his own private practice in southern California.

When Freitas started at the Air Force Academy, all he wanted was a guarantee he'd be able to fly the fastest plane. Medicine wasn't on his mind until one of his instructors suggested he check out a genetics course.

He discovered science thrilled him as much as flying.

At first, he loved that thrill of medicine. It was exciting to be part of saving a life. It seemed like everyday working in the emergency room or the intensive care unit was a life-or-death situation, he said, like the stuff you'd see on TV.

But it became more than that.

Now at the Banner clinic, life is a little slower: He works with a lot of geriatric patients and other complicated cases. He's the first line of defense for complex patients to keep them out of the hospital, he said.

"I realized I developed this incredible love for people," Freitas said.

One of Freitas' patients was a World War II veteran. Freitas said he listened to the man's stories about how it really was back then and what it was like to fight in such a massive war.

He began to love the wealth of stories and experience he got from his older patients. Being a doctor became less about the thrill of solving a puzzle and more about the people themselves. Their lives came to life for Freitas, and he loved being a part of them.

There was one woman who had just lost her husband. Her heart was breaking, but she was seeing it as chest pain, he said. He was able to help her on a human level.

Freitas is thankful for the work he's able to do and frequently asks himself what he did to deserve this spot in life.

Before he started working at the Johnstown clinic, he worked with homebound patients. He and his assistant would travel to visit patients and do what they could to treat them from their homes.

Valerie Olivas worked with him then and is now his medical assistant at the clinic.

Despite the military background, Olivas said, Freitas is more of a teddy bear than he lets on.

"He's definitely the boss," Olivas said with a laugh. "You can tell he's had his military background."

Yet he's protective of his staff and patients, Olivas said.

Coming to Johnstown was an adjustment after working in Florida for several years.

The first word he thinks of to describe Johnstown is tiny, but he loves it.

"There are wonderful people here," Freitas said. "They are the bread and butter of America. You've got farmers and oil workers."

There's also a huge Latin American community here, he said.

Knowing Spanish has been incredibly helpful in the medical field, Freitas said. He's able to use it to help many Weld County folks. He's also used it to help with Front Range Baptist Church's Spanish ministry.

He was once an atheist, he said. But the same genetics class that led him medical school set him on his path to faith. Looking inside a human cell sparked the process, he said.

"It was like seeing into the eye of God," he said.

Freitas remembers one of his friends who stood out as one of the only other professing Christians in the field. They'd often spend hours debating faith. Freitas called his friend up when Freitas decided he was right.

"I said I understand," Freitas said. "If a man was born blind, how could you describe to him a desert sunset?"

Despite patient losses in his career, his heart isn't hardened to loss. His dad is sick now and in Hospice care, he said.

"He's the one who came and said 'This is the way,'" Freitas said. "I can't imagine a world without my father."

Freitas has two brothers and a sister. Both his brothers are physicians now, too. Freitas claims he paved the way, though his brothers deny it.

It seems they all tried to make the man who risked it all proud.

Freitas has three sons now. He and his wife, Julie had two of their own. They adopted the third.

While stationed in Japan, his two sons befriended another American boy. He came over more and more and loved spending time with the family. His own father was an alcoholic and his mom was addicted to drugs. It was hard to watch, but they didn't know what to do.

Freitas and his family rotated back to the U.S. they got a call from the boy, then about 15.

"He said his dad kicked him out and he had nowhere to go," Freitas said. "I bought him a one-way ticket, and he's been calling me 'dad' ever since."

His sons didn't end up in the military or the medical field. One's a graphic designer, one's a pastor of a church and another works as an office manager for a dermatology clinic.

Freitas, now in his 60s, doesn't think he'll retire. He gets restless if he has nothing to do. If he does decide to retire, he'll probably move to full-time ministry with the church.

Though he likes to be busy, he always sure to make time for his wife, Julie. She was the first woman he ever dated. She lived next door when Freitas' family moved to California to start up his dad's private veterinary practice. They got married a month after he graduated from the Academy.

He jokes that he started his marriage with a lie, telling Julie he'd spend the rest of his life with her when in reality he's spent most of his time away from her, at work.

Every Friday, he turns off his phone and spends the day with her.

"God has allowed me to do some amazing things," Freitas said. "Things people only hear about. My biggest challenge is not to take that for granted."

— Kelly Ragan covers features and health for The Greeley Tribune. Have a tip? Call (970) 392-4424 or email kragan@greeleytribune.com.

Thanksgivng Day dinners

Veterans of Foreign Wars Thanksgiving Dinner

What: Thanksgiving Dinner, open to the public

When: Doors open at noon

Open to the public

Cost: Free

Where: 3501 State St., Evans

For more information, call (970)339-3025

Old Chicago gathering

What: Old Chicago’s first Thanksgiving Gathering event for residents in need, complete with turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy and cranberry sauce

When: 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Thanksgiving Day.

Where: Old Chicago restaurant 2349 29th St. in Greeley.

Cost: Free

The event is open to the public. Folks will be served at a first come, first serve basis. The dinner will accommodate over 700 guests.

For more information, contact Katherine Mills at kmills@cwrestaurants.com or Anna Wells at Old Chicago at (970) 330-1116.