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Celebrating Your Mentors: David Acosta, MD, AAMC Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer

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For Dr. Acosta, becoming a doctor was something he knew he wanted to be even as a child. But getting there wasn’t always easy. Without the important people in his life who inspired and motivated him to pursue a career in medicine and never give up, he wouldn’t be where he is today. In this article, he reflects on those special people and how they supported his journey.

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As I reflect back on my personal motivators to pursue a career in medicine, several immediately come to mind. It started with our family physician, Dr. Raymond Brandt, who made house visits to provide care for my abuelita (my maternal grandmother). I remember being taken by how he treated my grandmother with grace, humility, and compassion. He also spoke fluent Spanish and it was always a joy to see the delight in my abuelita’s eyes whenever he visited. As a child, I’ll admit that I was frequently in his office; he sutured my lacerations, mended my broken bones, and cured my bouts of tonsillitis. He could do no wrong and I made my mind up early on that I wanted to be just like him.

Then my grandmother taught me the power of healing through nontraditional methods. She was a herbalista (herbalist) and was recognized as a “community healer providing remedios (remedies) for common dolencias (ailments) inflicting our neighbors who had no medical coverage and couldn’t afford to go to a doctor like Dr. Brandt.

The reasons I admired Dr. Brandt and my abuelita so much came into focus when my Jesuit educators in high school and college introduced me to the concepts of social justice and servant leadership. It sealed my decision to pursue medicine as I discovered that social justice and servitude were inextricably linked to being a healer.

Then there was my eldest brother Lou, an emergency medicine physician, who demonstrated to me that becoming a physician is attainable if you want it enough. He was not accepted into a U.S. medical school, he left the comforts of home and family to attend school in Mexico—that’s how much he wanted to become a doctor. And, while he had to do his first year of residency in Canada because he did not get into a U.S. residency program, he never gave up. He taught me about resilience, perseverance, how to overcome adversity, and how important it was to have the courage to seek solutions outside the norm.

Unlike my brother I had the good fortune of being accepted to a U.S. medical school – the University of California Irvine College of Medicine. I was blessed to have had mentors in medical school, like Dr. Williams, who introduced me to the joys of community health and the world of primary care serving underserved and marginalized populations. I loved my Friday mornings seeing patients with him. He taught me the importance of compassion and empathy in caring for patients. He reminded me why I went into medicine in the first place: social justice and servant leadership.

But all did not come so easy for me. One of my most difficult experiences was during medical school when I failed my Step 1 Board exam twice. I had always struggled with standardized tests, and this one was no different. On my first attempt, I missed the passing score by three points. I was absolutely devastated and ashamed. Almost all of my classmates passed the exam on their first attempt and moved on to their clinical years. I was left behind. I felt like an imposter. But I was given a second chance six weeks later to try again. But even after endless studying, I failed the exam again. This time missing the passing score by one point. I was discouraged and wondered whether medicine was the career choice for me. But I was reminded of my brother Lou – of his determination and his courage to overcome adversity with veracity. His voice inside my head kept saying, “…it is reachable if you want it bad enough.” And talks with Dr. Williams reminded me that being a servant leader was never meant to be an easy task and required the humility to ask for help when needed.

I swallowed my pride and finally asked for help. I  discovered my learning style and changed my studying approach to match the way I learned best, working diligently with a “study buddy” (thank you Tony Esparza!). On my third attempt, I passed by 25 points!

As I advise pre-health students today, I recount my story and the lessons learned. I emphasize to students that it’s all about finding your passion and letting it be the driver of your success. Having the courage to persevere, face adversity head on, and never give in to the voices that say you’re an imposter. Leverage and celebrate the mentors who have helped you discover your passion along the way. I can only hope that today’s future doctors can find their Dr. Brandt, abuelita, Lou Acosta, Brother Smulders, and Dr. Williams. Without them I would not be who I am today.

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David A. Acosta, MD, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer

As chief diversity and inclusion officer, David A. Acosta, MD, provides strategic vision and leadership for the AAMC’s diversity and inclusion activities across the medical education community, and leads the association’s Diversity Policy and Programs unit.

A physician of family medicine, Dr. Acosta joined the AAMC from the University of California (UC), Davis School of Medicine where he served as senior associate dean for equity, diversity, and inclusion and associate vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion and chief diversity officer for UC Davis Health System. He previously served as the inaugural chief diversity officer at the University of Washington (UW) School of Medicine, where he established a rural health fellowship program for Tacoma Family Medicine, a residency program affiliated with the UW Department of Family Medicine.

Dr. Acosta received his bachelor’s degree in biology from Loyola University and earned his medical degree from the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine. He completed his residency training at Community Hospital of Sonoma County in Santa Rosa, Calif., and a faculty development fellowship at the UW Department of Family Medicine.

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