Dr. Fritz Francois: Giving Back To Fellow Haitians
BY JON CRONIN
Dr. Fritz Francois came to the United States to fulfill his father’s dream that his children’s intelligence and tenacity would bring them brighter futures in a land of milk and honey.
Francois’s father moved to America first and, 10 years later, sent for his wife and five children in Haiti. Francois had only met him intermittently since birth.
In fact, his father was not present at his birth, but had sent a letter asking that his son be named Fitzgerald, after John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a name that he thought inspired hope and opportunity. Francois’s uncle received the letter, but had never heard of the name and believed it to be a mistake. So, the infant was named Fritz.
Francois was raised with his siblings in Port-au-Prince and his early education was completed there. Francois grew up speaking Creole and French with his Dominican-born mother.
They settled in Brooklyn and Francois attended public school there. He and his siblings were placed in English as a Second Language classes. Francois spoke very little English, but was good at math.
“My advantage was that math is a universal language,” he said.
He had trouble reading in English, but noted that math helped with his interest in the sciences.
He recalled that the ESL class to which he was assigned and didn’t challenge the students, so he quickly grew bored. But one teacher noticed that he had perfect scores in math, so he was transferred to mainstream classes, where he received perfect grades on every test. He then was placed in an advanced class.
“What was not evident to teachers at the time was that my Haitian education was a much more rigorous structure,” Francois noted.
In terms of expectations for his success, Francois said that his parents and extended family never expected less than the best.
As a student in Brooklyn, he could see that students weren’t ranked.
“It was as if I was trained for a marathon, but only had to run 3.1 miles,” he said. “Other students complained about a lot of homework, but it was no problem for me.”
Despite academic success, speaking English was often difficult for him, and by fifth grade he was still very quiet. One day, when the teacher was asking the class to identify pictures of politicians and world leaders, she held up a picture of the pope.
“That’s the Pa,” he said, using the French word for “pope.”
His classmates laughed at him and said, “That’s not a pop star! That’s the pope!”
Francois said he pledged to himself that day that he would practice his English and diction until it was perfect. Years later, he was selected as the commencement speaker for his graduation at New York University’s College of Arts and Sciences. He said that he stood on stage with Mayor David Dinkins and his parents and began his speech—“I am Haitian and an immigrant”—in perfect diction.
After the speech, he said that a Haitian immigrant who worked in the university library as a custodian sought him out. She told him that students often made fun of her accent—but on that day, he made her proud to be Haitian.
“I allowed it to wash over me,” he said of the embrace. “[I realized that the immigrant experience] is bigger than me. It’s not just about me. So many came before.”
Today, as a gastroenterologist and chief medical officer at NYU Langone Hospital, he still keeps a connection to his roots and a belief that the immigrant community needs to be educated about healthcare. He often engages immigrant and minority communities to reduce health disparities and noted, “I know colon cancer is something that impacts minorities disproportionately.”
Francois has conducted focus groups dedicated to women and men of color who are most at risk for colon cancer and least likely to get screened. Some had never heard of the disease, while others believed that they couldn’t get it because they were heterosexual or didn’t eat microwaved food.
“It’s been interesting to see them open up to the disinformation,” he said.
Francois has worked with other physicians and published a paper on the dissemination of information to these communities and how to engage them.
Well into his career, Francois is keeping the covenant that he made with himself in fifth grade and bearing in mind the realization on his college graduation day that the immigrant experience is bigger than himself.