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Robin Huebner, Published September 21 2012

Robin Huebner reports: Fargo doctor born in Peru gives credit to Father Jack

FARGO – Dr. Napoleon Espejo works seven days a week at virtually any hour of the day, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“There is no schedule for service,” said the physician and medical director at the Family HealthCare Center in Fargo, a clinic for people who would otherwise not get medical care.

The family and OB-GYN doctor sees patients at the clinic daily, then squeezes in visits with new moms and babies.

“Either I start very early in the hospital, or go there at noon, 6 p.m., 9 p.m., whenever they need me,” he said.

One of Espejo’s patients, Jesse Vargas, has diabetes.

“He makes a person realize how important your health is,” Vargas said.

Espejo also spends two half-days each week with Cass County jail inmates, reviewing medications and treating some of them for drug and alcohol withdrawal.

The seeds of that drive to serve were planted the Rev. Jack Davis, a Fargo-born priest. Father Jack visited Espejo’s native Chimbote, Peru, in 1974, and chose to stay to minister to the poor.

“I was 14 when he came to my parish,” Espejo says. “His focus was on youth groups … taking us out to the countryside to build homes for the poor. That was when we realized there were people worse off than us.”

In that politically- charged time, the young Napoleon, or Lucho to his friends, decided he wanted to change the world.

He first had his eye on ministry, but quickly switched to his backup plan of medical school.

By landing in the top 300 of 15,000 students vying to enter San Marcos University in Lima, Peru, Espejo got a top-notch education for next to nothing. It cost him just $12 or “one dollar for each semester,” he said.

Espejo’s plan was to become a health care policy maker, not a practicing physician. But along the way, fate intervened.

He met Laura Christenson of Fargo (daughter of Marlene and the late Boyd Christenson, the former WDAY-AM talk show host) while she was a volunteer in Chimbote. The two fell in love and got engaged.

While he went to medical school, Laura studied nursing at NDSU.

They later married in Chimbote and started a family. But it became difficult to raise their four children there because of the threat of terrorism. At times, the family had to flee to safety.

They decided to move to Fargo, where Espejo would do his medical residency at the University of North Dakota’s family practice residency program.

The move was bittersweet. In Fargo, Laura was diagnosed with cancer. It was devastating news for them and their families, and the factor that altered Espejo’s career path.

“All my dreams of the big guy going back to Peru to do policy medicine disappeared. We decided to stay in Fargo and raise the kids here,” he said.

Two years after her diagnosis, Laura died at age 39.

Espejo still feels guilty for not returning to Chimbote, but serving patients here is not a compensatory mechanism, he insists.

“I understand the people, the threat of violence and persecution they are under, because I lived that. At the same time, I understand the Caucasian culture. This is a great place for me,” he said.

His job has its challenges, to be sure. Many patients are uninsured or underinsured, and many are new Americans.

“Our patients are difficult. You’ll see some from Africa with bizarre skin disorders you’d otherwise never see. You see horrendous deformities in people who were injured and never saw a doctor,” Espejo said.

How does he last without breaking? “That’s my faith. Every Monday, I still love to come here. Remember, I could be shot in Peru!”

It’s been 14 years on the job for Espejo, and he and his second wife, Marlene, are empty nesters at home.

“My kids used to tell me, ‘Dad, you are very calm at home, but when you are in the clinic, you walk fast like Father Jack,’” Espejo laughs.

It’s appropriate to draw parallels between the two men, because Espejo appreciates Father Jack’s influence.

“He helped me to have a good purpose in life,” he said.

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