By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Alvaro Tori feels so blessed in life – personally and professionally – that he can’t quite talk about it without becoming emotional.
The pediatric critical care physician apologizes but then, just as quickly, recovers with these words: “We walk so fast in life, sometimes we forget to feel.”
Dr. Tori feels deeply – for his patients and families, his colleagues, his community, his family, and especially for those who feel unseen.
For 15 years, he has cared for children in the pediatric intensive care unit at Riley Hospital for Children, nearly 20 if you count his time in residency. He is also a faculty member with the Indiana University School of Medicine and senior associate dean for diversity affairs for the School of Medicine.
And these are but a few of his identities, he says.
“I am very purposeful in saying who I am. I am a physician, a gay male, a Latino, an immigrant, a husband, a father. These are the identities I bring with me and how I see the world. This is who I am.”
Dr. Tori recently sat down for an hourlong interview, touching on his childhood, his path to IU Health, his approach to patient care, the sense of duty he feels toward marginalized populations, the joys of being “Papi” to his two children, and how learning to knit during the pandemic helped calm his mind.
LEARNING FROM HIS FATHER
A native of Lima, Peru, he learned about medicine from his father, a respected neonatologist who occasionally took a young Alvaro with him on hospital rounds.
“I remember seeing how grateful people were to him,” Dr. Tori said. “I wanted to create that same level of impact. Medicine was a path to help me do that.”
His dad, who passed away two years ago from COVID-19, taught him responsibility, how to give 100% and to be better every single day.
“My dad was building the professional side of me, and my mom was building the emotional side of me. I think they did a good job together.”
His mom, who still lives in Peru, taught him to always be grateful, no matter how much you have, he said. To say thank you. To be polite and compassionate.
“Represent us well,” he recalls her telling him. “Always remember that kindness will open a lot of doors for you.”
The lessons from both of his parents are deeply rooted in the physician, who completed medical school in Peru, before coming to Indianapolis to interview for a residency post at IU School of Medicine.
His humility sometimes gets the better of him, and he says he fully expected to be passed over by IUSM, the largest medical school in the United States. In fact, his sights were set on Miami.
A CHANGE IN DIRECTION
Instead, he left his interview here – the first of half a dozen with schools around the country – with a feeling that this was where he belonged.
“I came here the first time Jan. 7, 2003, and it took very few hours to know that this was going to be my home. The energy, how they treated me … they valued who I was, and they were purposeful, talking about why this place was right for me.”
Twenty years later, he remains high on both the school and the hospital system.
“I adore this place. There are days that are tougher than others, but overall, this is the place where I find joy. I bring the joy and the pain home, so I want to be in a place where I have that balance. That helps me be better at home.”
At home are husband Toby Ringle (among the kindest human beings he has ever met, Dr. Tori said) and the couple’s two children, ages 9 and 10. It’s a family the physician could only dream about before coming to Indiana.
Coming from a very religious household, a socially conservative country, he says he struggled to reveal his full self for years.
“I didn’t know if I had a future as a physician, as a pediatrician, as a human being.”
He found everything he was looking for in time, and with it all comes a feeling of peace mixed with responsibility, the latter both to his patients and the larger community.
EQUITY AND INCLUSION
As senior associate dean for diversity affairs for IUSM, he advocates for diversity, equity, inclusion and justice in programs and in people, whether it be in recruiting, retention, promotion or training in cultural humility and more – all designed to Improve the climate for those from marginalized backgrounds, he said.
“I’m proud of that work. I know we have many barriers, but it’s a job that needs to be done, and it brings me joy.”
On his lapel, he wears the Caduceus medical pin in the colors of the rainbow as a welcoming sign for any LGBTQ patients, families, students and staff.
He acknowledges that being so transparent with his story might expose him to hurtful comments, but he keeps his eye on the bigger picture.
“For people who don’t think it’s important for me to say who I am, they need to check their privilege, their experiences in life. It’s important to me to bring my full self because you never know who’s watching, who’s reading, who might feel they can’t reach their full potential because of who they are. I am welcomed in this space because of who I am.”
EARNING FAMILIES’ TRUST
On the clinical side of things, he says becoming a parent has made him a better physician.
That patient he treats could be his child – that parent could be him, he said.
“How would I like to be spoken to? There is not a disease lying on that bed, there is a human being, someone’s loved one, someone’s child. That makes me work harder; that makes me think harder. That makes me spend more quality time, not only with the patient but with their family members, their caregivers to share the information I have, but also to listen to them – their concerns, their struggles, their barriers.”
He believes that connection sometimes is missing in healthcare, that clinicians don’t always provide that space for patients and family members “to trust more, to share more, to know that we care more.”
Being a physician also makes him appreciate being a parent more. Life and death are part of his job, so outside the hospital, the marathon runner and tennis player is active in his kids’ school, in keeping them connected to his homeland and in teaching them how to knit, a hobby he took up during the pandemic to relax his mind and honor a past boss and mentor.
“I know that I can lose everything in one minute, so when I go home, I hug my kids, and I am more patient. The small things that bug me become smaller and smaller. I value what I have more because I know that I could lose it.”
“PEOPLE ARE WATCHING”
He knows well the fear in a parent’s eyes when their child is critically ill.
He tells the story of an encounter years ago when he was leaving a grocery store, pushing the cart to his car.
“This story always makes me cry. I heard my name in the distance, Dr. Tori, and this couple rushed to me. They hugged me, telling me they are so and so’s parents and that I had saved their child’s life.”
That encounter changed his life.
“That’s why we have to pay attention, because people are paying attention to how much you care for them, how you treat them. People are watching.”
Justine Atkinson was watching. Her toddler spent several days in the PICU over Thanksgiving, including time on ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) after the boy choked on a peanut.
She remembers the compassion Dr. Tori and the rest of the care team showed her family through some of their worst days.
Mattie Atkinson is now home and healthy, but the frightening incident is seared into his mom’s memory and heart.
“I feel like I’m leaving part of my heart here,” she said at the time. “The way they loved us and loved him, I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.”
Leading with empathy, kindness and compassion helps him take better care of patients and families, Dr. Tori said.
“The more space I create for trust, the more they will share, the more questions they will ask, the more they will understand, and the better care we will provide.”
Dr. Riad Lutfi, a colleague of Dr. Tori’s in the PICU since 2012, says Dr. Tori has put patient and family care first throughout his time at Riley, addressing health inequities inside and outside the hospital.
“Being a good doctor starts with being a good human,” Dr. Lutfi said. “And Alvaro takes those principles outside of medicine into the community. I can’t ask for a better friend, colleague and human to work with.”
STILL LEARNING FROM OTHERS
For his part, Dr. Tori says he is grateful to those who have seen something in him that he sometimes struggles to see in himself, whether that be his skills as an advocate for marginalized populations, his ability to connect with medical students in the classroom or the impact he has on patients, families and team members every day.
And he acknowledges watching others closely, looking for qualities they bring that he can steal, he says, things he wants to see in himself as he continues to grow as a physician, a teacher, a husband and a father.
“I will never be perfect, but that’s why I like to watch other people to see what I am missing.”
So, he surrounds himself with people he can learn from, he says. Riley Hospital and IU Health allow him to do that.
“When patients and families are home and healed, I want them to look back not on the fear they had, but with the feeling that they trust this place, that they were treated with kindness, with respect, with compassion. This is what healthcare is about; this is what Riley Hospital is about; this is what IU Health is about,” he said.
“I want to be in a place where I feel that I’m part of something big, even if I am a tiny, tiny part of it. I want to be in a place that shares the same values that I have, and this is the place that gives me that. Every day that I walk away from this building, I know that through my administrative work, or clinical work or educational work I was able to make a difference for at least one person.”
Those lessons his mom taught him as a child continue to guide him. And she was right, he believes. Treating people with kindness and respect has opened doors for him.
Now, it’s a lesson he imparts to his own children, not to secure success but for a more altruistic reason.
“You do it because it is the right thing to do and because other people deserve it.”
Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, email@example.com