Fernando Montes Tapia

Dialogue with a Seventh-day Adventist pediatric surgeon and researcher from Mexico

Fernando Montes Tapia was born in the south of Peru, in a laidback town not far from the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Dr. Montes Tapia is professor of pediatrics and surgery and director of pediatric emergencies at the University Hospital of the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León, Monterrey, Mexico. In addition, he is a researcher whose findings have been published by peer-reviewed international journals, and is chair of the press and promotion office of the Medical Surgeons Association of the State of Nuevo León, part of the scientific committee of the Mexican Association of Pediatric Surgery. His academic career also includes studies in laparoscopic surgery at the University of Montpellier and the University of Strasbourg, in France, and a doctoral degree in pediatrics from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Spain.

Dr. Montes Tapia is an active member of the Cumbres Seventh-day Adventist Church in Monterrey, serving in child and youth ministries, and promoting health ministry in both the church and the community. He is married to Rosario, who as a pediatric nurse shares his passion for bringing healing to sick children and relief to their distressed parents. Together, they have two sons of primary school age.

Shall we begin with how you became acquainted with the Seventh-day Adventist Church?

I was born in a Catholic family in the small town of Camana, in southern Peru. As a young boy, I assisted our priest in our local church as an altar boy. When I was 11, ready to begin secondary school, my parents took me to the regional capital city of Arequipa, where I lived with two of my sisters, one of them older than me. I enrolled in an Evangelical Peruvian-British school. There I learned to sing hymns and to pray. Toward the end of my high school years, my elder sister finished college and returned home, while I stayed in Arequipa by myself. My life became divided between studies and being a sort of purchase manager for my father. I used to buy supplies in the big city and send them to my father’s store back in our hometown. At that stage, I had more than enough time for partying. It was then that I acquired bad habits, such as smoking and drinking.

When I finished high school, I decided to study medicine. Several friends from my hometown were in the city of Monterrey, Mexico, and I liked the idea of leaving Peru for Mexico. Providentially, a distant cousin, who is a Seventh-day Adventist pastor, informed my parents about a nearby university in Monterrey, the Seventh-day Adventist University at Montemorelos, which also had a medical school. In order to be accepted, I had to pass an exam, which was sent to Peru.

I passed the exam, and sometime later, I found myself on an international campus, with students coming from various parts of Latin America and overseas. Many words, dishes, and traditions were unknown to me, and the same applied to the beliefs espoused by the school. In fact, the school teachers’ worldview and their way of facing life were completely foreign to me. Very soon, I found out that living in the school dorms meant I could not keep the unhealthy habits I had. Dorm life helped me to put them aside, even though during my first few weeks, I used to smoke and drink when I was able to leave the campus on weekends. But when I was taking pathology, I got to know about the harmful effects of smoking, and I decided to quit for good.

The school environment and the good influence of my Christian classmates motivated me to develop a personal relationship with Jesus. At the end of one Week of Prayer – those special meetings of high spiritual impact – I surprised my friends, who were already praying for me, by giving my life to Jesus through baptism.

Looking back, do you think it was a coincidence that you ended up studying medicine in a Seventh-day Adventist university in Mexico?

Not at all. I arrived in Mexico with a social motivation – to follow in the footsteps of several of my friends – and an academic plan – to study medicine. But God had another plan; He wanted me to get to know Him better, and changed my ways. After I was baptized, I understood that God had guided many people, such as my parents and my pastor cousin, to help me make decisions that eventually influenced my course of action. I know that I had the power to make my own decisions regarding my life, but I constantly asked God whether my decisions agreed with His will. I needed to keep vigilant so as to avoid walking in my own paths, but rather in God’s. He has never failed me.

Why did you decide to become a pediatrician?

As I was doing my professional practice stint, I found out that there are basically only two kinds of patients: adults and children. Adults didn’t interest me! During my internship at La Carlota Hospital, in Montemorelos University, I fell in love with children. I love the way they are, I love their innocence, and I find it a challenge to treat them. After all, did not Jesus say that the kingdom of God is theirs and that we are supposed to be like children?

Part of your specialization was done in France. Could you tell us about it?

While I was chief resident in pediatric surgery at the Children’s Hospital in Mexico City, I met the chief of pediatrics and the director of the University Hospital in Monterrey. They already knew me, because I had been given an award as the best pediatrics resident. The chief of pediatrics offered me the opportunity to practice pediatric surgery in Monterrey. I informed him that I would love that responsibility, but before I could take that on, I wanted to get a new specialization. He offered to help me with the specialization of my choosing, if I repaid the costs of the scholarship with years of service. I chose University of Montpellier, in France, and there I focused on getting trained in neonatal laparoscopic surgery. Then in 2002, I returned to Monterrey. When we left for France, we were only two, my wife and I, but when we returned we were three: our eldest son was born in that country.

In your practice, have you found problems with beliefs such as keeping the Sabbath holy, the principles of Adventist health, or any other similar tenets of our faith? If so, how have you responded to those challenges?

I have always expected that keeping the Sabbath would be a problem when working in a public university and in a public university hospital. I have come to learn, however, that far from being a problem, the Sabbath is an opportunity for being a faithful witness, no matter where I am. I also think that the health message and all the other beliefs I practice as a Seventh-day Adventist are an opportunity of sharing God’s blessings. I leave God the hurdles I find along the way; He knows how to solve them, and the only thing I must do is keep trusting Him fully.

How do you manage to share your faith in your practice, administrative work, and as a researcher and teacher?

Jesus is my example. Whatever I do – attending to a patient, talking with a patient’s family, teaching, researching, or working in administration – I do it with love and a sense of sharing that love with those with whom I come in contact. Keeping my eyes focused on Christ, I am able to perceive the needs in every exchange with my bosses, colleagues, students, patients, and hospital staff. It is my goal that every person who gets in touch with me may perceive God’s love through my words and actions.

It is not an easy task; sometimes, when under the pressure of emergencies or high-risk situations, I just focus on solving them, and I forget my goal of letting everyone see God’s love through me. Sometimes, I have had to ask for forgiveness, and I have even cried as I repented for a specific action of mine. I am persuaded, however, that the only way of getting to know and understand my role as a disciple of Christ is keeping a relationship of total dependency on God.

How do you relate to your local church?

When I returned to Monterrey, I just wanted to attend a local church every Sabbath, without getting involved in a specific position, but my life experienced God’s forgiveness in a way that I had not felt before. That experience was another watershed moment in my spiritual life. From then on, I have accepted my responsibilities as a member of the local church, and I feel the joy of being actively involved in the life of the church, according to the needs of the body of believers.

I remember one occasion when I felt God calling me to respond when my church could not find a Sabbath school teacher for the beginner class (serving children up to two years of age). I decided to offer myself. I had never been a Sabbath school teacher before at any level. And now I was offering to teach the youngest in the church, who would come to me not to be healed, but to be spiritually nurtured. My wife and I began to teach the babies and toddlers in the cradle roll Sabbath school, and we felt God’s blessing upon us.

Once we take up God’s call to serve, we are enabled and strengthened to do the best the responsibility calls for. The God who calls is also the God who enables. I eventually began to teach Sabbath school for older children too, as well as in the Pathfinders Club. I have also become one of the leaders of my congregation, by being ordained as an elder of my local church. Currently, I am serving the church as coordinator of the local Adventist youth association. I am also treasurer of the Northeast Conference Association of Health Professionals, and I assist as a volunteer physician in the Pathfinders camping events across the region.

So besides your professional and personal activities, you spend time supporting your local church.

Well, the church is in fact part of the community. As Christians, we must not only serve in our workplace, but also in our communities. That’s why I have taken part in various activities which promote health beyond the hospital walls. We have been in public squares in order to be contagious not about a disease, but about something that is just the opposite. We focus on prevention. I love leaving my office and the wards full of sick people and going outside to tell people: “Take care of your health; please follow a healthy lifestyle.”

Some time ago, we took part in a public impact event under the motto “I want to live healthy.” Among the various activities, perhaps the one that most attracted people’s attention was a very big salad bowl. Imagine! It contained salad for the 20,000 people present! A large group of volunteers in matching T-shirts distributed small 6.5-ounce bags of first-quality veggies that had been selected by qualified professionals. Thus, we were able to give a clear message about making the effort to live a healthy life by giving chemical-free vegetables and fresh fruits a prominent place in our diet. We also received the support of the local media, which echoed our efforts by praising an initiative that proved to be both useful and attractive.

How do you balance your time as a researcher, professor, and ward director with the time you need to spend with family and on your personal and devotional life?

Well, sometimes I feel that the time available is never enough. Through the years, my wife has helped me a lot to set my and my family’s priorities straight.

What could you say to current students in medicine or other programs, who are attending non-Adventist schools and often feel challenged to live their faith?

Experience for yourself God’s love and forgiveness. Once the Holy Spirit touches your heart and mind, nothing will be the same. If you want to develop a personal relationship with God, as in the case of any other human being, you need to spend time and make efforts to be with Him. A close relationship with God requires spending time reading His Word, talking to Him regularly, and being a faithful witness. This is the foundation that will allow you to practice the faith you need in order to become a true disciple of Jesus Christ.

Raquel Bouvet Korniejczuk (Ph.D., Andrews University) is vice president for academic affairs at the University of Montemorelos, Mexico. E-mail: rkorniej@um.edu.mx.

Fernando Montes Tapia’s e-mail: vinculaciondgest@gmail.com.