Undergraduate: California State University Los Angeles (2003, 2007)
Major: BS Nursing and MS Nursing
Medical school: The University of Kansas School of Medicine, Class of 2017
Residency Training: Internal Medicine; St. Agnes Medical Center (updated in 2018)
What led to your interest in medicine?
As a child living in El Salvador, an impoverished country, disease and death in small children was a common thing, but I didn’t understand why it happened. Losing childhood friends to preventable diseases was the main reason that I became interested in medicine. I wanted to “cure” my siblings and friends when they were sick and longed to find a way to make them feel better.
What experiences did you have that confirmed medicine was the right career for you?
My first job was as a pharmacy clerk in El Salvador; I was 12 years old and I LOVED IT! At this pharmacy, the pharmacists were able to diagnose and prescribe, which I found very interesting and was inspired to learn the gift of “diagnosing”. I found it so gratifying to see patients get better after treatment.
Then, after moving to the U.S., having my daughter at the age of 14 was my first experience as a patient. The resident that deliver my daughter took time after the delivery to talk to me about my future. He asked me when I was going to go back to school and if I knew what I wanted to study in college. I told him that I was going back to school in a few days and that I wanted to be a doctor. He told me that if I wanted to become a doctor, it was going to be a challenge, especially as a teen mother, but that it wasn’t impossible. He gave me hope.
Why did you decide to become a nurse?
My college advisor told me that I didn’t have the grades to pursue a degree in medicine and I had small children to take care of. Nursing seemed more obtainable, so I completed by Bachelor’s degree in nursing and went to work at Kaiser Permanente hospital. I was very comfortable taking care of patients and I performed very well during stressful clinical situations. But, there was something missing… I wanted to understand and learn more about the disease process and how to create a treatment plan for patients. Being in such close proximity to physicians allowed me to see more of what their role entailed. This convinced me that my childhood dream of becoming a doctor had not died.
Who or what inspired you?
This country inspired me. Back in El Salvador, education is not free and so having a free education in the United States through high school allowed me to believe that I had a chance to get well prepared for college. My elementary and junior high school teachers inspired me to always keep my education my number one priority.
Dr. David Sacks, an OBGYN physician at Kaiser Permanente hospital inspired me to become a physician by his example of practicing medicine with the compassion that patients deserve. He would come on the weekends, when he wasn’t on call, to check on his critical patients. He took the time to explain his plan for the patient to me, his patient’s nurse, with such respect and professionalism.
Dr. Carmen Arevalo, a family medicine physician whom I met in nursing school, would see patients who couldn’t afford to pay for the office visits. She always followed-up with patients, and made sure that her patients received the care that they needed. She taught me that you could be a mother, a wife, and a physician and still have a balanced life.
What made you decide to apply to medical school?
One day, I was giving my oldest daughter a talk about how she should pursue a career that will make her happy, that she can be anything she wants to be, and that all she needs to do is to try. My daughter said something like: Mom, you always wanted to be a doctor but you never tried. It immediately hit me…she was right. I never tried; I never applied to medical school. Although many professors, coworkers, and doctors believed that I was smart and had special qualities to be able to work with patients, I didn’t think I was smart enough because of my upbringing and lack of college preparation in high school. But after having that conversation with my daughter, I decided that I loved medicine and it was my passion and calling, and that I was going to give myself that chance. I didn’t want to be an old lady in a nursing home thinking “why didn’t I try to be a doctor…why did I give up on myself?
Did anyone encourage or discourage you from applying to medical school?
My father discouraged any career. He believed that a women’s place was in the home and that women were not smart enough to get a career, and that education was for “rich” people and not for “us”.
My undergrad college advisor discourage me from even considering medical school. He believed that having 2 kids as an 18 year-old college student, being female, Hispanic, and having no enrichment courses in high school was only going to make me fail out of college..
However, everyone that I worked with encouraged me to apply to medical school. My mother eventually encouraged me but it was hard for her because she knew that I had to quit my job and possibly move out of the state if I got accepted into an out-of-state medical school. My sisters, my kids, and friends encouraged me to apply and remained supportive throughout the whole application process.
How did you prepare for the medical school application process?
I went back to college and made an appointment with my pre-med advisor. Together we outlined the classes that I needed to take in order to apply to medical school. I set a goal GPA for my classes, got a tutor for the most difficult classes like organic chemistry, and kept a close relationship with my professors and advisor. I used the AAMC website to get all the information regarding the application process: letters of recommendations, transcripts etc.
I continued to work at the hospital while taking my premed courses and continued to search for opportunities to volunteer in my community. I wanted to be able to convey a true picture of who I was and my true reasons for pursuing a M.D. degree in my medical school application. I kept in contact with my mentors who helped me with proof reading my personal statement, seek research opportunities, and generally keep me hopeful throughout the whole application process. Other resources that were helpful were: the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and Student Doctor Network online forums.
Did you have any concerns about taking the MCAT exam?
Yes, many. Not having exposure to advance math and science courses in high school placed me at a disadvantage in college. I had to take remedial courses in English and Math which took away opportunities to enroll in many science courses since I lacked the math pre-requisites. This severely affected my MCAT preparation thus my scores on both exam attempts were below the national average.
I was also concerned with the Verbal section of the MCAT exam because I had not read many of the classic books that the average high school student reads. Also, because I learned English as a second language, I was also unfamiliar with common English idioms. It was difficult to make inferences on topics like fishing trips, art history, and poetry because I had no relatable experience with these topics. Lastly, I was concerned about the cost of MCAT prep materials. Thankfully a friend of mine paid for my MCAT prep course.
What is your top MCAT tip for applicants preparing to take the exam?
First of all, your MCAT score does not completely determine whether or not you will become a physician or how good of a physician you will become. Believe in yourself, believe that you are more to a patient than a MCAT score, invest in other dimensions that make up a physician such as volunteering and exercise true compassion and empathy towards those who are experiencing difficult times.
Second, I strongly believe that taking high school and college courses seriously and striving to enroll in advance math, English, and science courses that teach concepts that are tested on the MCAT is critical. Get tutoring on those classes that teach the high-yield MCAT concepts in order to have a strong foundation so that when it comes time to start your MCAT prep you have a better chance of improving your performance.
Did you have any fears going into medical school?
Yes. I was afraid that I was going to fail my first module because I had a low MCAT score and did not have a “traditional” pre-med education. I was afraid that I was not able to afford medical school and the cost of living. I was afraid that my kids, mother, and sisters would resent me for not being able to have an income during medical school after quitting my nurse practitioner job that paid me exceedingly well.
How did you prepare for medical school before your first day?
I will FOREVER be grateful to the University of Kansas School of Medicine for believing in me. I enrolled in their 1-year post-baccalaureate program for medical school applicants that come from a disadvantage background. It gave me the opportunity to enhance my science foundations by taking upper-division science classes that are critical to the 1st year medical school curriculum.
At the end of the year and after successfully passing all courses, I was offered a place in their medical school and enrolled in the pre-matriculation program led by Dr. John Wood (my first medical school mentor). This program was offered to any medical student who had been accepted for that year and had come from a disadvantaged background. The program was designed to give incoming medical students a taste of what lectures and labs were going to be like. It introduced us to what technology is used in lectures and labs to help us get comfortable before the “official” first day of class. It also gave us the opportunity to take sample computerized tests to get a feel for what the testing environment was going to be like. Most importantly, I think it offered a supportive environment where we could get to know some of the professors and ask questions or communicate our fears. Having mentors, and role models, right away in medical school was crucial for me. I also really appreciated the sample dissection activity because when it came time to do a real dissection I felt more comfortable and had more confidence.
What made your medical school the right fit for you?
The University of Kansas SOM strongly believes and exemplifies the true meaning of serving the community. They offer many community service and research opportunities for first year medical students. They also have a “Big sibling program” where first year medical students get assigned to a 2nd year medical student who mentors and guides the 1st year student through the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd year. When I interviewed at this university, I was seen holistically as a person. I felt that they really cared about me, a prospective student. I also learned that the University was to be named as a cancer center so I saw them striving to be the best medical center they could be and I continue to see when I walk the hospital campus.
What kind of financial aid did you need to pay for medical school?
Student loans, scholarships, and unfortunately I had to cash in my 401K savings from my nursing job.
What memory stands out the most from your first day of medical school?
Meeting my deans, Dr. Robert Simari, Dr. Mark Meyer and our executive Vice Chancellor Dr. Doug Girod and learning about all the outstanding things they had accomplished as physicians. I was impressed to hear about their vision was for the incoming medical students, patients, our community, and our country as a whole. I saw them (and continue to see them) as great leaders and role models, I immediately trusted them with my education and training.
Did you have to change any of your study habits?
Yes. I went to see a learning specialist to help me identify what my learning style is and how to incorporate changes into my current study habits to be more effective in getting through ALL the lecture material and, at the same time, how to sort “high-yield” test material from lectures.
Please describe your participation in extra-curricular activities, volunteer work, research, or study-abroad opportunities during medical school or residency.
My dean, Dr. Mark Meyer, gave me the best advice: secure your grades and then think about extra-curricular activities, then have a balance. For the first few modules I didn’t participate in extracurricular activities but after having a good routine for studying and being more comfortable during test day, I began to sign up to participate in campus clubs like Latino Medical Student Association, and interest groups like Internal medicine and family medicine. At the end of my first year, I applied for a summer research experience with Dr. Aditi Gupta, a nephrologist, and that was extremely helpful both personally and professionally to see a female physician in that specialty and doing research. By watching her, I saw powerful example of a woman was not only a physician, but also a specialist and a researcher.
What helps you manage your stress and stay motivated?
I call my daughter Mia, who is 12 years old, every day in the morning (wake her up so that she can get ready for school) and tell her I love her. In the evening, we a have brief conversation about her day and my day, and when possible we FaceTime. Maintaining a good close relationship with my children motivates me and helps reduce my stress. I also exercise and get together with classmates to socialize.
What makes your story unique?
My capacity to see and accept that becoming pregnant at the age of 14 was not a choice, but rather a result of the environment and circumstances for which I had no control…I was raped. I am 36 years old and my daughter Isabel is 21, my son Victor is 20, and my daughter Mia is 12 years old. I brought diversity into the incoming 2013 class at the University of Kansas SOM by representing many young minority women who are victims of health care disparities in our country. I am a survivor, one that can get up and tell a story of what it’s like to have basic life necessities not met due to one’s immigration, gender and social economic status. As I learn from my fellow classmates and faculty, I believe they are also learning from my experiences as well.
Growing up, seeing many people dying from preventable diseases instilled in me a need to create change in the current medical care delivery system in underserved communities and to improve the general health of our country. This passion and commitment to serving patients as a physician never ceased to exist despite the many adversities I was confronted with.
What do you enjoy most about medical school?
So far the cadaver dissection and the friendships that I have developed in medical school are some of the things that I have enjoyed the most.
What surprised you the most about medical school?
The amount of material that is covered in each lecture. Also, I was very surprised to see other non-traditional students in my incoming class, but wish there were more Hispanics.
What specialties are your current top choices?
I’m considering Internal medicine and nephrology.
What advice do you have for applicants considering a career in medicine?
Be honest with yourself about the reasons you want to become a physician. I feel that if I love what I do, then it’s really not a job. I want to be able to wake up every day and love my career. If you strongly feel that medicine is your calling, then volunteer in health care settings and shadow doctors to get a feel for the profession. If you still feel that medicine is your life and passion, then hit the books and don’t look back. Look forward to your future, focus, and prepare yourself to be a competitive applicant.
If you had the opportunity to talk to a potential medical student, what would you tell him/her, off the top of your head?
If you want to be a doctor, you will be a doctor, is all up to you. You are the only one who can stop the process of getting to your goal. When confronted with roadblocks, you must believe with every cell in your body that YOU WILL FIND A WAY to overcome that roadblock.
What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career track similar to yours?
Find a mentor who shares similar interests, goals, or experiences as you to help guide you to being successful in the career track that you choose.