Eric Zuniga

University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine, 2019 His father's illness inspired Eric to leave his engineering career to pursue medicine.

Eric Zuniga

Undergraduate: University of Southern California, 2009
Major: Chemical Engineering with a Biochemical Emphasis
Medical school: University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine, 2019

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was nine, I was fascinated with computers and even had a dream that my parents had purchased a computer. My elementary school had an aging computer lab and I felt a natural attraction that pulled me towards them. I would spend many hours there during my after school program.

As I awoke from my dream, I felt bitter as I was tossed back into reality: my parents could not afford a computer. When I was asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, I said that I wanted to work with computers.

What led to your interest in medicine?

My parents migrated to Los Angeles from Mexico shortly after my older brother was born. The area that I called home for 17 years of my life outside of my parent's apartment in South L.A. was riddled with easy access to drugs and the lure of gangs. Inside our home there were several times were my parents had to rely on food stamps to complete our meals.

We never had a family physician because my father's sewage machine operator job in the L.A. textile industry did not provide health insurance. Our health care was provided by the local L.A. county clinics.

At the beginning of my middle school years, my father was diagnosed with diabetes, and we did not understand this. Over time, my father failed to manage his diabetes and turned to alcohol. My dad drank because he was sick and as he started to feel worse, he consumed more. Witnessing this, I yearned for some way to help my dad, but I was always more pre-occupied with finding a job and securing a source of income after graduation.

When I browsed through a pamphlet of majors in engineering, I read about engineers that made insulin pumps for diabetics and with this in mind I wrote down my select major in engineering. By selecting this route, I thought I could do it both: fix my dad and gain economic security.

As I began to establish myself in my career as an engineer at the age of 24, my thoughts were consumed by father’s illness. I began to question what I was doing. What is my passion? Until now, I had not seriously considered medicine as a career path. But as I thought about what drove me through college, it always a desire to want to help my dad. Through the years, this notion matured and pushed me to seek a medical volunteer opportunity.

What made you decide to go to medical school?

A month into my internship as a medical interpreter at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, Calif., I quickly learned that my father’s experience was not unique. Among Latinos, diabetes was rampant. I immediately thought about how daunting and foreign it must have been for my father to navigate the county clinics alone.

Like my father, most patients that I met were from a working class background. My desire was to be the most useful instrument to these patients that allowed them to be empowered players of their own health. I felt a natural connection with them and at the end of an interpreting session, they opened up to me about their families and personal lives. Often they would ask me questions related to their conditions that they had not previously asked their care-givers. Without the appropriate training, I could not answer these and I would then follow up to get them an answer. Here is where I had an epiphany: I wanted to be the person that can answer their questions. I wanted to become a physician. 

Did anyone encourage or discourage you from applying to medical school?

I have been extraordinarily fortunate in that I obtained the support from my wife, my family, and my current employer. Several physicians that I met gave me advice on the challenges that they faced in practicing medicine today and to really consider whether changing careers was the right course for me. With that in mind, I was able to make a thorough decision in deciding to apply for medical school.

Was there one person who stands above the others as your inspiration to go to medical school?

Once I was convinced that I wanted to become a physician, I searched for more volunteer opportunities that allowed me to interact with physicians. This is how I came to know Dr. Shantu Patel. 

Dr. Patel is an internal medicine primary care physician who is an active volunteer with the Flying Samaritans. It was at a monthly-free clinic in a local church in the community of Ejido de Matamoros in Tijuana, 10 minutes across from the U.S.-Mexico border, where I witnessed Dr. Patel quickly recall facts, ask pertinent questions, and make life-changing diagnoses. His expertise as a clinician and natural connection with patients is something that I aspire to have some day.

How did you prepare for the medical school application process?

My starting point for the medical school application process was reading a copy of the AMCAS application manual. Thereafter, I made an appointment with the pre-health advisor at my undergraduate university six months before the start of the AMCAS application cycle.

Did you have any concerns about taking the MCAT exam?

When I started to study for the MCAT exam, I had already been out of school for over three years and it had been around seven years since I had taken the pre-medical courses. My biggest concern when taking the MCAT was thinking that I needed to re-learn everything I had learned in my undergraduate pre-med classes from day one.

After taking my first official AAMC practice exam, I learned that this was definitely not the case, and in fact what I needed to focus on was getting more exposure to the exam itself.

The other challenge I faced was re-learning how to study and finding the time while working full-time. Given that I could not set aside weeks to study, I did not take any prep courses; instead I re-capped material at my own pace by seeing free video lectures available online via MIT OCW, vignettes from Khan Academy, and used the AMCAS practice exams. Overall, it took me six months to prepare to take the MCAT.

Did you need financial aid to pay for medical school?

Yes, I do. My current financial package comprises of loans and school grants.

Do you remember your first day of medical school? What memory stands out the most?

I have not yet started medical school. However, I can’t wait to start.

What advice do you have for new applicants considering a career in medicine?

To new applicants, I would advise to get familiarized with the AMCAS application early. The application is broad and requires a lot of thought and time.

The following piece of advice goes out specifically for new applicants who find themselves in a similar situation like me who are in the process of changing careers. A big concern I had with part of the application was securing letters of recommendation from professors at my university. Given that at the start of the application cycle, three years had passed since I graduated, I had to make some cold calls and e-mails to several professors. While I was a student in their classes, I never thought of asking for letters of recommendations because at that time I did not think that I would one day be applying to medical school.

Fortunately what worked the best was to send an e-mail that briefly mentioned that I was a former student who was in the process of changing careers that was seeking their help. Attached to that e-mail I provided them with my personal statement as well as my resume.  Most professors replied and were very understanding of my circumstances.  We then made arrangements to either meet in person or speak over the phone. 

Do you have additional information or thoughts to share that would be helpful to prospective students?

Your interest in medicine can come from any kind of experience, whether it was a family physician that has provided superior care for years or a result of an acute hospitalization of yourself or someone you know.

My biggest piece of advice to anybody interested in medicine is to go out in your community and get involved in something that really interests you. You do not have to travel outside of the U.S., to have meaningful volunteer experiences. There are health disparities throughout the U.S., often found in our own backyards.

Once you get involved in a particular activity, make the most of it. When I volunteered as a medical interpreter, sometimes there was down time and my services as an interpreter were not needed.  During those times, I would return to patients I had already met and start conversations with them. It was fascinating to get to meet and listen to the stories that patients share. Experiences like these reinforced my desire to become a physician.

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