Health care advocate Mario Gutierrez, who worked tirelessly to end disparities in medical care for Native Americans, migrant workers, rural residents and many other people, died unexpectedly Wednesday at Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento. He was 68.
Dr. Debra Johnson, Gutierrez’s wife and a partner at the Plastic Surgery Center, said an autopsy is being done to determine cause of death. Gutierrez had undergone prostate cancer surgery on Aug. 1, she said, but he fell ill within days of returning to their Curtis Park home and had to go back to the hospital Aug. 16.
Since 2011, Gutierrez has served as the executive director of the Sacramento-based Center for Connected Health Policy, where he and his team worked for greater integration of telehealth technology into California’s health care system. Gutierrez is also known for his work with migrants at the California Endowment, on AIDS projects at Sierra Health Foundation, and on behalf of Native Californians at the California Rural Indian Health Board.
James Crouch, a longtime friend of Gutierrez and a former leader of the Indian health board, said Gutierrez forged relationships with leaders such as Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman to improve health care for Native Californians who were not federally recognized as tribes. Gutierrez, working under the direction of Native American leaders, helped to get the Indian Health Service brought back to California.
“Mario would have said he was facilitating what the leadership of the Native California communities wanted,” Crouch said. “Don’t make him the hero. He was the facilitator, the policy-wise person who could explain what was needed to the congressional and non-Indian communities.”
At the Center for Connected Health Policy, Gutierrez has helped to extend the reach of doctors into rural and urban areas where local providers have a need of greater expertise. With him at the helm, the organization grew from its focus on California to a national stage, said Mei Wa Kwong, the organization’s policy adviser and project director. It now runs the National Telehealth Policy Resource Center, a repository for any rule or regulation passed on telehealth in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
“That has had a significant impact in the telehealth field because you know what everybody is doing,” Kwong said. “You could go to this resource that was verified. It also … helped spur more and more states to do their own telehealth policy.”
While at the California Endowment in 2007, Gutierrez became the first Latino to receive the prestigious Terrance Keenan National Leadership Award in Health Philanthropy for his work in developing health programs to serve agricultural and rural workers.
Even as he did this work, Johnson said, Gutierrez supported her career as a plastic surgeon and was a devoted father to their two children, Gabi and Pablo. The couple met when Johnson was working in a clinic for the Indian health board. They juggled a commuter relationship and then a commuter marriage as Johnson completed her medical studies at Stanford.
Then, Johnson said, Gutierrez agreed to take a break from his career to go with her to Spain and France where she did a plastic surgery residency for a year. Gutierrez became primary care-taker for their daughter, took cooking classes at Le Cordon Bleu Paris and studied painting as well.
To know the family, Gabi said, was to know her father’s paella. Pablo, on the other hand, said he despairs of ever again having the simple Cuban staple of black beans and rice prepared as well as his father made it.
The siblings also recall the crazy bedtime stories their father told them, impromptu tales he made up about a Brazilian girl name Carioca who was forever falling into some sort of amazing adventure. They remember how their father often accompanied their mother on trips to fix cleft palates and other facial anomalies for disadvantaged children around the world. Before leaving, Gabi said, their dad would slip sealed envelopes to the friend or relatives watching over them.
“He would leave us these treasure-hunts when they were gone,” she said. “It would be like riddles and puzzles, and we’d try to find presents around our neighborhood or in our house. One of my favorites I found … was a really fancy watercolor set, and he got me into that when I was a kid.”
Besides his wife and children, Gutierrez is survived by his brother, John Gutierrez of Oakley, and a host of other relatives. Mario Gutierrez’s life will be celebrated at 2 p.m. Wednesday at Sierra Health Foundation’s Building 1, 1321 Garden Highway, Sacramento. A reception will follow at 3 p.m. The family encourages guests to wear white or Hawaiian attire.