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Importantly, a second group that received nitrite for only five minutes before reperfusion recovered almost as well, with about 36 percent cell damage. “It means that you could be treated with nitrite while you're being prepared to be catheterized [to remove artery blockages] with no time lost,” says Gonzalez, the paper's first author.
With this paper and an early, or phase 1, safety study in human volunteers complete, Gladwin, now at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, is pursuing funding to carry out a phase 2 clinical trial in heart attack patients.
Testing each subject required 22 hours of continuous work, and Gonzalez sometimes did two tests a week. “It took very physically grueling work to get the data,” says Arai, Gonzalez's mentor and a cardiologist skilled in imaging techniques. “Felix did an outstanding job.”
Gonzalez had years of practice being resolute and working hard. Soon after he was conscripted, he decided to leave Cuba. It took a year of planning, some deception, and luck to gain permission to go to the United States. Still, on departure day, he felt torn. His parents had separated when he was 3 years old, and he felt guilty leaving his mother behind.
“It was the uncertainty that made it difficult. I wasn't sure when I would see her again,” he says, recalling that day at the airport. “She told me, ‘When you start something, you have to finish it.'”
When he reached the United States, Gonzalez received some support from a Cuban-American organization and his estranged father, a factory worker who had moved to New Jersey years earlier. After a few months, Gonzalez began to support himself as a dishwasher while he studied English. For a time he lived out of a small car.
Gonzalez still dreamed of having a medical career. After studying at New Jersey's Kean University, which offers courses in Spanish and English, he earned a B.S. and was accepted at several medical schools and two M.D./Ph.D. programs. They offered scholarships, but he was suspicious, he says, since in Cuba, free education came with strings attached. He decided to enter the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey, and to apply separately to research programs. He hopes to specialize in interventional radiology and to continue his involvement in research.
Two years ago, after becoming a U.S. citizen, he helped his mother move to the United States. It had been more than a decade since he had last seen her.
“I think I have had success because of my perseverance,” Gonzalez says. “If I really want something, I don't ask permission—I just do it.” He says he hopes those still living in Cuba will also someday have better career opportunities. “I would like to see more freedom and economic investment in Cuba, so people can make their own life choices.”