Damien M. Luviano, MD

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Born with a physical handicap and growing up in poverty, Dr. Luviano overcame many obstacles to join the U.S. Army and then become an ophthalmologist.

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Undergraduate: University of Texas at Austin, 1997
Major: Biology
Medical school: University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, 2003
Residency:  Los Angeles County Martin Luther King, Jr/Drew Medical School
Specialty: Ophthalmology

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

I knew I wanted to be a doctor from the time I was 9 years old because of a dreadful accident in my family. When I was old enough, I enrolled in the Dr. Michael Debakey High School for Health Professions. I wanted to attend this high school so much that I went to the interview alone when my parents were not able to take me. As young as I was, I took two city buses and got lost along the journey. But nothing could have stopped me from taking this first step.

Who or what inspired you?

The physicians and surgeons who treated my family member during a critical time after an accident spent a great deal of time with me, and they even let me follow them around the hospital for hours. Seeing my interest in all things medical, they encouraged me to become a doctor. I admired them tremendously, and I wanted to be like them. In high school, we were allowed to work in hospitals and clinics, and these experiences confirmed my career choice.

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

Some people discouraged me. The comments they made included, “It takes too long to become a doctor. You could be sued. It will take all of your time. You will end up being divorced,” and many more. These statements were insignificant compared to the encouragement from those physicians when I was 9 years old. I knew that I had the intelligence and desire and was capable of demanding academic work. I already knew I would love to practice medicine as a profession.

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

Dr. Diane Russell, my research mentor, gave me tips to help improve my likelihood of being accepted to medical school. Primarily, she encouraged me to quit my job to improve my GPA, which was 3.5. After concentrating on my studies, my GPA increased to 3.7, in spite of the coursework becoming progressively more difficult.

How did you prepare for the medical school application process?

I began to read what the application process entailed a year or two before it was time to apply so I would be sure I didn’t miss any deadlines. I had lined up the references and had all the prerequisites. I paid attention to dates of things like interviews, so I would not be taking important courses during interview time and could prepare for the process.  

Did you have any concerns about taking the MCAT® exam?

Of course, because I knew a low score would keep me from even applying to medical school. To combat this fear, I built confidence by taking practice tests and a prep course. Only after I was happy with my practice exam score did I apply to take the real test because I did not want to take the MCAT® exam more than once!  

What is your top MCAT tip for applicants preparing to take the exam?

Begin taking the practice test as soon as you know that you want to be a doctor. In particular, take the practice MCAT exams during and after your chemistry, physics, and biology courses. Then take the MCAT exam as soon as you complete Physics II and Organic Chemistry II.

Did you have any fears going into medical school?

Yes. I was worried about the extremely long shifts during some of the clinical rotations because I suffer from debilitating migraine headaches that are triggered by lack of sleep.  I was also afraid that I would mistakenly injure a patient. One day, during my internship year, I was asked to place a central line in an elderly patient with very severe lung disease (ARDS) and multiple organ failure. In this case, I did not feel confident placing the line because I knew that if I made any mistakes, the patient might not recover, so I asked a more senior peer to help me. I was concerned that I would get in trouble doing this because I would mean that I did not perform the task assigned to me. However, my chairman, Dr. Ernest Dunn, agreed that my peer and I had made the right decision.  He was a brilliant teacher and taught us that sometimes the best decision is to find someone better than yourself to help the patient.

How did you prepare for medical school before your first day?

I got married a few months before medical school started, and the joy of being a newlywed helped me cope with the anxiety of going to medical school.

What made your medical school the right fit for you?

The same way you choose friends; you just know. University of Texas Southwestern Medical School made me believe they sincerely cared for me as a person and a student. During the interview period, they took us on a bus tour of the city, showed us places we could live, and things we could do. The deans of the medical school, Jim Wagner, Barbara Waller, and Byron Cryer, knew our names on the day of the interview, and still knew them on the first day of class! The deans genuinely cared for each of us, and to this day, we still keep in touch.  

What kind of financial aid did you need to pay for medical school?

I applied for loans and scholarships. Over 90% of my aid was in loans. I have started repayment, and at this point in my career, it is very affordable. In 2016, I joined the Veteran Affairs Medical Center, and they have offered to pay 50% of my loan debt.

What memory stands out the most from your first day of medical school?

On our first day, our class was divided into groups of 10, and each group attended dinner at the home of a medical school faculty member. This was such a generous gesture, and it allowed us to quickly get to know our classmates and bond with them and our professors. Joel Goodman, the professor who hosted my group, is a professor of pharmacology in the medical school and had been a music major in college. He and his wife played the piano for us. They were amazing together.

What was your first year of medical school like?

Our first year was not as difficult as I expected it to be. In the first few weeks, we took only a few courses, but as the year progressed, more courses were added gradually. At the same time, the medical school hosted many social events for us and gave us tickets to movies, the theater, museums, and invited us to the homes of philanthropists. I had more free time in the first year of medical school than I had in college, and I even picked up a few hobbies.

Did you have to change any of your study habits?

Yes. In college, I attended every lecture, but in medical school, I concentrated on reading the material rather than going to the lectures. The reason for this is that I was able to read the lecture material through a scribe service organized by my class. This method of studying allowed me to have most evenings free to spend with my wife, Sonia.

Please describe your participation in extracurricular activities, volunteer work, research, or study abroad opportunities during medical school or residency.

I have continued to volunteer with the Make-a-Wish Foundation as a wish grantor, and I also help recruit new volunteers. During medical school, I was in a summer research program that studied the effects of domestic violence. The medical school also made paid summer externships available to us, and I participated in a pediatric externship. When I became interested in clinical medicine, I volunteered for Prevent Blindness America and assisted in conducting vision screening. The medical school even awarded me with a scholarship for volunteerism.

What helps you manage your stress and stay motivated?

Spending time with my family reduces stress. Motivation is part of my nature, and I stay upbeat most of the time. Plenty of sleep is very important in my case to reduce migraine headaches.

How did you balance your personal time with medical school?

In medical school, my studies came first. After my studies were done, then I would enjoy personal time. I had enough personal time except during surgical, medicine, and obstetrics/gynecology rotations, which were more time-consuming for me.

What makes your story unique?

I was born in Mexico with a physical handicap where my feet were turned the wrong way. Some doctors thought I would never be able to walk while others thought I would ultimately grow out of my condition. But my parents sought a second opinion, and I underwent surgery at the age of 6 months. Eventually, I was able to walk with Forest-Gump-type leg braces, and by the time I was five, I could even run without braces. Gradually, I developed enough physical confidence to apply and join the United States Army. I joined the military during the first Gulf War to prove to myself that I was not weak, to escape poverty, and to help pay for college. My confidence was no match for the physical rigors of the Army. I suffered several injuries and hospitalizations while in active service due to aggravation of my pre-existing congenital abnormal lower extremities. As a result of these injuries, I am considered a service-connected disabled veteran, and I receive outstanding medical care and benefits. Today, I am not able to enjoy sports or running, but at least I am able to walk and perform my duties as a physician.

Did you overcome any other challenges?

At the age of nine, my family moved to Houston, Texas. A few months later, a tragic family accident left us financially and emotionally devastated. Almost homeless, we moved frequently among relatives, yet we survived with the help of many generous people. One story that comes to mind: I disobeyed my parents, and went walking around the neighborhood, I got lost and wandered into a church for help. The minister drove me home, and handed me back to my parents. A few hours later, the minister returned with a truckload of furniture; he had noticed that we lacked furniture in our new home. We reluctantly accepted. The generosity and kindness of people has been a frequent factor in my success.

In my youth, we must have moved at least 15 times. I have never asked my parents why we moved so much, but I sensed that crime and poor living conditions were a factor. Because we only had one car, we often had to go to the grocery store or laundromat on foot. I started working at the age of 11, delivering newspapers, and by the age of 14, I had saved $800 dollars, enough to buy a used VW Beetle. That car gave us a new independence; I drove my mother and siblings to and from stores, etc. One day, while driving with my mother and 5 siblings, I was pulled over by a police officer. He believed that I looked too young to be driving, and he was right. At the age of 14, I did not have a driver’s license or even auto insurance. He asked me where I was going, and I explained to him that our electricity had been disconnected because at that time we did not have money to pay the bill, and my mother could not drive. The officer, speechless, just stood there. I asked him if I should go home. He said no, go pay for the electric bill. At the time, I did not feel that I was suffering, or that I lived a hard life. Life just felt normal to me, but it definitely was not. Hundreds of generous acts have happened to me, some small and some large, and each time, because of my youth, I did not fully grasp the size of the kindness until years later.

Yet, another example occurred when I decided to attend college full time after my overseas Army Tour. I was accepted to the University of Texas at Austin. A few days before class, I proudly, I showed up to the department of housing to ask them where I would live. They explained that I was supposed to apply for housing months before the first day of class.  The officer researched housing availability, and she learned that I had not applied for financial aid. Without mentors, I was naive, and I did not know that I should have applied for financial aid — I thought being a U.S. Army veteran would be enough.  Without any hesitation, the officer created a dorm for me by converting a study room in the student dormitory, enrolled me in a meal plan, and sent me to a financial aid officer to apply for loans and grants. The university employee could have just sent me away, but she did not.

I have exceeded the expectations of many, including my parents. Today I have a bachelor’s degree, an MD, training in the prestigious specialty of ophthalmology, and I am a senior editor for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Most importantly, I am a veteran helping other veterans preserve and improve their sight.  

What did you enjoy most about medical school?

Medical school was the most fun I have ever had, far more than college. I could work a few weeks as a pediatrician, a few weeks as an emergency room doctor, a surgeon, a neurologist, or an ophthalmologist. These experiences helped me decide the type of physician I wanted to become. Some students learned they loved kids and became pediatricians, some realized they did not like working directly with people and became pathologists and radiologists. Not everyone likes touching people, and they may prefer to work alone, but medicine needs those physicians, too. I loved technology and lasers and the ability to save someone’s vision, so I chose ophthalmology (specifically eye surgery).

What surprised you the most about medical school?

That I would be allowed to assist in many interesting surgeries and procedures while still a student. I was able to help perform many surgeries, manage complicated patients in the ICU, and even deliver babies in the OB/GYN rotation.

Why did you choose your specialty?

I wanted to become both an expert and a leader in a medical specialty. I knew I wanted to concentrate on a single organ because that would allow me to master that topic. I considered cardiology, neurology, radiology, and ophthalmology. I was also attracted to pediatrics, so I enrolled in pediatric cardiology, pediatric neurology and radiology, and pediatric ophthalmology rotations. My favorite rotations were pediatric neurology and pediatric ophthalmology.

I chose ophthalmology because it allowed me to choose work in subspecialties such as pediatric eye surgeries, laser surgeries, telemedicine, retina, neuro-ophthalmology, glaucoma, ocular pathology, and many more. In essence, ophthalmology offered a pathway to become highly specialized and the option to perform surgery. Another factor was that as a group, ophthalmologists were the happiest and most satisfied group of physicians that I met in medical school.

If you had the opportunity to talk to a potential medical student, what would you tell them, off the top of your head?

I'm reminded of a famous quote: "If you believe you can do it, you are right. If you believe you cannot do it, you are also right." You should also always have a 5-year plan — at least in your head. Find several mentors to help you, including older students and professors. The easiest way to find professors to be your mentor is to offer to help them with their research projects. You cannot achieve your goals alone: you will need help, and sometimes the kindness and generosity of strangers.

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