Defying All Odds: The New Generation of Latinx Doctors

Sep. 28, 2016 / By

Latinos make up almost 40 percent of California’s population, making them the fastest growing community in America. However, only four percent of California’s doctors are Latino.

Shadowing physicians has been one of the ways up-and-coming Latino doctors have been able to gain confidence and the determination to grow academically. Below, we profile three Latino doctors who tell us how they beat the odds.

A Chilean-American family practitioner shows how Latinas shape the medical field in California

Family health practitioner of four years Tatianne Velo, who currently works at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, felt that the physicians in her Santa Ana hometown weren’t serving her community in the best way possible. As a daughter of Chilean refugees who had to give up their education to escape oppression and terror under a military regime in their homeland, she and her family settled in Santa Ana, a community that had a large number of undocumented residents. Accessing a doctor was a challenge.

“My parents are hardworking individuals who always stressed education in my family. But it was difficult for them to give me any guidance in higher education and for us to even navigate the healthcare system. It was foreign to them,” Velo said.

Velo enrolled in the City College of San Francisco and later transferred to Cal State Fullerton where she majored in biology in 2004 in the hope of becoming a biomedical researcher. She dedicated most of her time to gaining experience in clinical research.

She maintained good grades and had to fall back on her own resources to pay for school. She worked full-time. Financial aid covered the rest of the cost.

“Those are the social-economic barriers that we as Latinas face. It’s providing for our families and working fulltime while going to college,” Velo said. “I was on my own all during undergrad and beyond but I knew it was an important investment of my time and energy.

Velo went on to get a post-baccalaureate degree in Cell and Molecular Biology at San Francisco State University. But after graduating with a Master of Science degree in 2015, she felt she would make a bigger difference by becoming a doctor.

At SFSU she observed first hand what culturally sensitive care meant. There she partnered up with other pre-med and Chicano Latino studies majors and opened a free medical clinic at Duroville, a rural town in the Coachella Valley that’s home to some 4,000 mostly Latino farmworkers.

Her experiences inspired her to enter the UC Irvine’s Medical Education for Latino Communities program, where she complemented her medical degree with a master’s degree in public health.

“It was all-consuming and a very competitive field,” Velo said. “You have to have a good sense of who you are and who we are doing this for, (remembering) that we as Latinos can offer new and innovative perspectives.”

At UCI, she saw first hand the struggle Latinas face trying to juggle their time between career and family life. But it was not impossible.

“If you want to have a family it’s possible,” she said. “I know of other female doctors like me who were able to juggle full-time work, their medical school program and still have a family. It’s just up to women to break down those walls and glass ceilings.”

A picture of Dr. Velo was not available.

A Mexican-American doctor doing his residency talks about the importance of persistence

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Being the first in his family to attend college, let alone becoming a doctor, was something Dr. Gerardo Hernandez, a family medicine resident at the Long Beach Memorial Hospital, never imagined. While growing up in a predominantly Latino neighborhood of Maywood, a small city in Southeast Los Angeles County,  before the Affordable Care Act was passed, Hernandez noticed that a lot of the socio-economically disadvantaged families like his faced barriers in accessing healthcare.

He wanted to bring them down. The one way he figured he could do that was by becoming a doctor.

But like other kids of minority backgrounds, school did not come easy. Hernandez attended a Catholic school where it was an everyday occurrence to deal with computers crashing on the students. He wasn’t very enthusiastic about reading and literature and was placed as a Title 1 student throughout elementary and middle school for underperforming in standardized testing.

“I struggled in standardized testing since I was little,” Hernandez said. “I was never a straight A student in middle school. Even now with board testing I have had to sit down and tackle that beast. Even though people say I am not good at standardized test taking, I have gotten better” over time.

When Hernandez was accepted into Cal State Long Beach he decided to major in microbiology with a minor in chemistry. There, he revived a campus organization for pre-med students called Minority-Focused Alliance of Pre-Health Students (MAPS.)

“It was this spark of leadership in my life that motivated me to go further into medicine and helped me understand the importance of organizing and providing resources such as health fairs and connecting people with community experts,” Hernandez said.

The two health fairs coordinated by him and other MAPS leaders, helped serve about 200 residents in the city of Bell in providing free clinical care and examinations to the public.

The impact that these fairs made on the community which consisted of mostly undocumented residents was noted in a report in La Opinion in 2010.

Hernandez felt more motivated to become a doctor after he got the opportunity to shadow a one from his neighborhood.

“I felt a source of identity and changed me to do better. It fired me up and I started straight As and became an active leader for MAPS,” he said.

Upon graduation, he received an internship with the Long Beach Veteran Affairs Hospital as a clinical research assistant for a GI doctor.  Hernandez helped measure the effectiveness of medications for Hepatitis C patients at risk for colon cancer as part of a longitudinal study.

At the time, cures for Hepatitis C included injections and treatments with severe side effects. But the medication being studied was a single dose treatment that proved to help cure those patients.

“I was part of [an effort ] in advancing medical care for Hepatitis C, which was amazing. I will never forget the skills I learned there,” he said.

One of the biggest pieces of advice Hernandez wants to give other aspiring doctors of color is to get hands-on experience before applying to medical school.

“That’s how you will know if medical school is right for you,” he  said.

For him getting into medical school was very challenging but he said his perseverance paid off.

“I was the only brown kid in my class in medical school with parents from Chihuahua, Mexico,” he said, noting that early on in school, it occurred to him that he had to work harder than others to prove he was up to it .

Importance of knowing your community from an Ecuadorian-American Physicianimg_0464

At a young age, general and Internal medicine physician at Harbor UCLA Dr. Chris Brown often wondered if the health care system was even there for him and his family who were patients at the Los Angeles County + USC Medical Center.

“Some of my fondest memories of me going to the doctor was waiting for several hours with my abuelito (grandfather) from Ecuador to be seen. I don’t remember ever really seeing a doctor. I just remember the waiting room.”

The lack of access to health clinics, healthcare and engagement that Brown witnessed encouraged him to become a doctor.

“I saw a need in my community for physicians,” he said, especially those of Latino origin.

After graduating from the University of Southern California with a bachelor’s degree  in biological sciences and minors in Spanish and bioethics, Brown felt he wanted to spend more time with his family before he went into medical school. So he traveled to Ecuador to see his extended family.

The UC Irvine program in Medical Education for Latino Communities attracted Brown because it would allow him to complement his medical degree with a master’s degree in public health at Cal State Long Beach.

While working closely with the National Council of La Raza during medical school, Brown reached out to the greater community of Long Beach by mentoring other young Latino leaders wanting to go into medical school.

But he felt under appreciated while in medical school, where he was one of only 10 Latino students out of a class of 100.

“Many of my colleagues and professors were not sympathetic to the Latino community and were not interested in engaging with (us) outside of class,” Brown said. “But it’s so important to understand these bio-psycho-social factors in order to approach a Latino patient in the best way possible, and that is what I learned by interacting with the community.”

“The greatest piece of advice I would give to other aspiring pre-med students both Latino and other students of color is to understand the needs of the patients they serve and the importance of being culturally competent,” Brown said. “Understand that as a Latino or Latina you are very powerful.

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Lightmary Flores

Lightmary is a Whittier College Student pursuing a major in Public Health. She is actively involved in the student run newspaper, the Quaker Campus, and cultural organizations on campus. As a proud Latina, she loves to sing Mariachi at events and family parties whenever she can.