Pediatrician Max Gucilatar joins health center.

Max Gucilatar has wanted to become a doctor since the tender age of 6.

It was an ambitious goal for a young boy from humble beginnings in the Philippines. Through hard work and perseverance, Gucilatar achieved his dream of becoming a doctor. He moved to the United States 25 years ago and has worked in hospitals both big – south central Los Angeles, and small – Lebanon, Kentucky, population 5,651.

In December, Gucilatar joined the staff of the Jefferson County Health Center, where he practices pediatric medicine.

“I’m so happy to come to the Midwest,” he said. “Most people are friendly in Iowa, and this hospital is the best I’ve ever worked for.”

Gucilatar, who is 57 now, hopes to work full-time at JCHC until he retires at age 70.

“If the hospital allows it, I’d like to continue working even after that, two or three days per week,” he said.


Pediatricians see patients ranging in age from newborn to 21 years, though Gucilatar said most of his patients are infants or toddlers, from 0-4 years of age. Diagnosing the problems of such a young child is no easy task. In some cases, the child may not be able to verbalize what’s wrong with them. In others, they may not want to tell it to a stranger.

“You have to go down to their level,” Gucilatar said.

Gucilatar worked as a trauma surgeon in the Philippines’ military. He recalls how his fellow doctors would address children in a rough, authoritative voice.

“A lot of doctors are afraid of kids because they don’t have the patience to deal with them,” he said. “They’d say, ‘You have chest pains? Let me listen to your heart.’ You cannot do that with kids. You have to play first.”

Gucilatar starts by complimenting the child’s shoes or clothing, and then shows them pictures, stickers and toys. A good ice-breaker is talking about Mickey Mouse and whether the child has seen him lately.

“Can we see if Mickey Mouse is hiding in your ear?” he asks the child. Gucilatar said children become enthusiastic about the exam, readily presenting their ear for him to search.

“I start seeing patients from when they are newborns until they grow up, so I become attached to them and see them as part of my family,” he said. “A lot of the small kids I see are immigrant kids, and when they move away, it’s really hard on me.”

Establishing a relationship with the child is one part of the job. Another big one is communicating with the parents or grandparents.

“Without their trust, you will have a problem,” Gucilatar said. “They’ll always be doubtful of you, wondering, ‘Do we need to do this lab test? Will it hurt my kid?’”

Gucilatar said the keys to gaining the trust of a child’s guardians are honesty and humility.

Early life

Gucilatar was born and raised in the Philippines, his father a pastor and his mother a nutritionist. He, his brother and sister did not grow up in a life of luxury.

“Very seldom do you find a pastor who is rich,” he said.

His father envisioned Gucilitar and his brother becoming pastors just like him. The family moved around a lot as the dad was transferred from one parish to another. Gucilatar didn’t like making friends one year only to lose them the next. A pastor’s life was not for him.

One day, a medical mission visited his town. Gucilatar saw a man wearing a white gown, and asked who he was.

“He’s a doctor,” a friend said.

“I want to be like him,” Gucilatar responded.

Gucilatar was serious about that dream. He went to medical school, and entered the military to be a trauma surgeon.

By the early 1990s, everyone in Gucilatar’s family had emigrated from the Philippines to the United States, so he joined them in 1994. He switched his career from surgery to pediatrics, one of the best decisions of his life.

God’s plan

“Now I know this is my passion, because every time I see my patients, it makes me happy,” he said. “I realized this is God’s plan for me.”

Gucilatar said he takes the greatest satisfaction in helping newborn babies come back from the brink of death.

“Sometimes a baby is delivered and it’s practically dead – no breathing, no heartbeat,” he said. “That’s where we come in to resuscitate and intubate. After a few minutes, the baby is breathing and crying, having gone from blue to red. That’s the miracle of life. It makes me so happy to deliver the baby, to know there is another life in the world.”

Gucilatar and his family lived in Loma Linda, California, for 12 years. He did his residency at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles. The university was founded in 1966 in response to the Watts riots the prior year to serve low-income people in south central LA.

Gucilatar left California to work in Lebanon, Kentucky, for five years. His two children, Miguel and Katrina, complained that Lebanon was too small, so the family moved to Jacksonville, North Carolina. After seven years, the family wanted to move somewhere more affordable. His wife Desiree, also from the Philippines, was the one who found the job opening at JCHC.

“She told me there was an opportunity in Iowa, and I said, ‘Where’s Iowa?’” Gucilatar laughed. “She said, ‘It’s in the Midwest. It’s nice!’”

Miguel is now a chef, having graduated from a culinary school. Katrina is going to college in North Carolina right now, and plans to live there.

Gucilatar said he hopes everyone in the community appreciates the health center like he does.

“We feel like a family at JCHC, and we support each other,” he said. “That’s what I wanted. That’s why I came here. I wish everyone can see what a nice hospital we have, and know they don’t have to go anywhere else.”