When Allenmykael Harlin-Gonzalez walked out of the men’s locker room in the surgery wing of Tacoma General Hospital, the transformation was remarkable.
He went in a 17-year-old kid, all sweet and nervous and excited.
When he came out, dressed in blue surgery scrubs, his curly black hair tucked under a cloth cap, he was – you would swear – a doctor.
His mom, Joanie Gonzalez, stared at him for a moment, temporarily speechless. Then her face broke into a big smile.
“Hello, Dr. Harlin-Gonzalez,” she said.
That’s the dream. Harlin-Gonzalez wants to be a doctor when he grows up.
He’s got all the makings: a 4.0 high school grade-point average, a nearly photographic memory, a flair for chemistry and calculus, and a compassionate nature that’s characteristic of the best people in health care.
The main thing standing in the way is his own body.
Harlin-Gonzalez has a rare form of genetic hemophilia. His blood won’t clot, and every so often, without apparent cause, he starts bleeding internally.
The incidents are life-threatening and have put him in the hospital too many times to remember, beginning when he was 9 months old. All the standard treatments for hemophilia have failed, putting his care in the realm of experimental medicine.
When asked recently how many surgeries he’s had, Harlin-Gonzalez had to think hard.
“I’ve lost count,” he said. “Just going by the number of scars, it’s 15.”
The bleeding has left joint damage in Harlin-Gonzalez’s right knee and left hip. He’s usually in a wheelchair and, according to his mother, in nearly constant pain.
For the past few weeks he’s been up on his feet, limping but determined to make it across the stage under his own power when he graduates from Puyallup’s Cascade Christian High School in June.
Hospitals have been Harlin-Gonzalez’s second home, and he’s a favorite among nurses and physicians at Tacoma General and Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital and Health Center. Some of them have watched him grow up and are humbled by his positive attitude and fierce determination to become a doctor.
The fact that he was suiting up in scrubs was the result of a special favor. Friends at the hospital arranged for an unprecedented private instruction session on MultiCare’s high-tech robotic surgery equipment.
The computerized da Vinci Surgical System allows doctors to operate on patients while sitting at a remote control panel, using dials and levers to manipulate tiny mechanical tools inside the patient’s body.
It’s an awesome machine, and Tacoma General is one of only three “Epicenter” teaching centers for robotic-assisted surgery on the West Coast.
With its octopus-like arms, lights, cameras and monitors, the system takes up most of an entire room.
During Harlin-Gonzalez’s session, the bed where patients usually lie was empty. Training involves simulations – exercises in manual dexterity that require moving infinitesimal objects in complex ways.
Harlin-Gonzalez slipped into the control panel like a pro. In seconds, he was using the remote devices like extensions of his body. On his first quiz on the simulator, he scored 96 out of a possible 100 points.
The muffled sounds he made with his face pressed into the viewer sounded like ecstasy: “Oh, man,” he said. “Oh, yes.” “That’s beautiful.” “That’s really cool.”
When he emerged, Harlin-Gonzalez suggested modestly that his dexterity might be because he enjoys playing with Legos and Buckyballs. It couldn’t be video games, he said, because he hasn’t spent much time with them.
So how is it that someone who has spent so much time in hospitals wants to make a career of being there? Why not try to find a profession that keeps him as far away as possible?
“Growing up in the hospital, I’m really comfortable here,” he said, “and I’ve had good impressions, especially at Mary Bridge.
“I even like hospital food, which is pretty bad, I guess.”
His passion for medicine began with trying to understand his own condition, Harlin-Gonzalez said.
“I always wanted to learn what was wrong with me,” he said. “I’ve tried to learn everything I can about my disability. Once I learned about that, I learned more about medicine in general. Because of the genetic component, I’ve learned a lot about the human genome.
“And besides,” he said, smiling, “if anything happens to me, I’ll already be at the hospital.”
Rob Carson: 253-597-8693