WASHINGTON — He walks the streets of his neighborhood like a prophet, a healer and a friend. Juan Romagoza is a touchstone of compassion in Washington's impoverished Latino community.
"I work for the poor because I am poor," he says. "My family is poor."
He is also a survivor of the civil war in his native El Salvador in the early 1980s.
He was an aspiring surgeon when the military kidnapped and tortured him for treating poor farm workers. His wife, a medical student, was murdered.
"They hung me, and they shot my left arm and they cut my finger in the right hand, too," says Romagoza.
They maimed him to ensure that Romagoza could never operate again. He found refuge in Washington, where Dr. Peter Shields hired him to run a free clinic one night a week.
"He is clearly compassionate," says Shields, who works at Georgetown University's Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. "He's clearly someone who is there first to help, and the first to find people to help."
Twenty years later, Romagoza can still be found at La Clínica Del Pueblo, now a full-service operation in a new building, making sure patients like breast cancer survivor Paula Vasquez get good, free medical care.
"First, it helped me by opening the door to relieve my pain," she says.
"He really understands what being a wounded healer is," says Sharon Baskerville with the D.C. Primary Care Association. "That drives him. He feels the pain acutely, so he'll never stop."
He is most comfortable among the powerless, working to make access to health care a basic human right.
"It is not a luxury," says Romagoza. "[It] is not depending on how much you have in your bag. It's part of your dignity, human dignity."
Help for those who cannot help themselves, from one who's suffered so much.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints