Human of Medicine: Vanessa

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The Basics

Vanessa, 27 years old

Where did you grow up?

I was born in the Bronx and lived there until I was 1 year old, at that point my mom moved her and I to Ecuador, her home country. I grew up in Ecuador for 6 years, my first language was Spanish. At the age of 7 my mom and I returned to the States, moving to Paxton, MA. 

Where is home?

Worcester

Where did you attend college and what did you study?

UMass Amherst, I was a Psychology major on the neuroscience/pre-med tracks.

Where do you attend medical school?

I am currently a second year medical student at the University of Massachusetts Medical School

What motivates you? Or in other words, what gets you out of bed in the morning?

The gift of being alive. Every day, before I get out of bed, I thank God for giving me the gift of opening my eyes, for the gift of being able to get myself out of bed physically, for giving me mental clarity, for the privilege to study what I love. Realizing that life is a gift motivates me to do something with that most precious opportunity.  

What brought you to medicine? Please give the real, unfiltered reason, if you are willing.

Honestly, it all started with my mom. She was born with “mitral valve issues” (the specifics were never known to her best knowledge) and battled with depression and anxiety for the majority of her life. Growing up I learned to take care of her while she took care of me; going to her doctor’s appointments with her at a young age peaked my interest in medicine as a little one. This interest evolved when we moved to the US. While we were financially well-off in Ecuador, my mom’s income was well below $20,000 a year in the States, her life was very different here. She was a single mom working 2 jobs, both of us living in my aunt’s basement for the majority of my childhood. Because her immigration status changed, after a few years here she did not have health insurance and therefore regular access to care; in addition to that, she couldn’t afford healthy food. She developed hypertension (I remember the day when she returned home from work with her nose gushing blood and when we took her to a free clinic where she was diagnosed with high blood pressure) and diabetes. Living with her through this, going with her to free clinics and community health centers exposed me to the social aspect of medicine. I met people like her, in the waiting rooms, who also struggled to have the proper care they deserved. In parallel, I found myself deeply interested in health classes and science classes as I went along in my education. Fast forward to the summer between my first and second year of college, I was 18 years old: my mom had a major stroke that left her paralyzed on the left side of her body and left her changed, she was a different person. A free bed was found in a community hospital where she was taken care of for almost 5 years. During this time our family (her and I, and my uncles, aunts, and cousins) went through a roller-coaster of events; from her barely being able to move her toes, to her digging her nails into my arm (a large portion of her brain was affected by the stroke, she had uncontrollable anger before her psychiatric meds were able to be regulated), to her needing an open heart surgery for a mitral valve replacement, to her physicians sitting me down to tell me she wouldn’t live more than a year (right before I took the MCAT), to her improving, to moving her to Ecuador, and finally to her passing away in 2016 from heart failure  (on her birthday….she was always a dramatic woman in life so this would only be fitting…). All of this to say: the pain she went through, the life she lived, the pain others go through, the life they live, all the vulnerabilities that exist when your health is at risk, this is what brought me to medicine. Me wanting to help people during their most vulnerable times is what brought me to medicine.

Who is most important to you and why? You can include more than one person.

My family (uncles, aunts, cousins), my boyfriend and his family, my loved ones; they’re all important to me. They are my tribe, they are the people who are there when things get tough and they are the people I am there for, whatever they need.

Describe your perfect day.

Hiking and then spending the rest of the day with my loved ones eating, laughing, enjoying each other’s presence.

Tell me about your dream. Do you have one? What does it consist of?

My dream is to become a super knowledgeable, resourceful, compassionate, competent physician (not sure exactly what field yet!) who is also an activist, working to better the lives of my patients outside of the clinic. And, to be a mom, I want to have a big family!

Describe your proudest moment. Why did you choose this one? 

Hmmm…that’s a hard one…probably when I was accepted into medical school. Even though acceptance was just the very beginning of my metaphorical climb, it felt like the golden ticket; like all my hard work up to that point was finally showing me it’s meaning and that it would allow me to finally begin to become a physician, my lifelong dream.

Is there something about yourself you wish you could improve? Why?

To not be so sensitive to other’s opinions. Admittedly, I tend to be a people pleaser but I learn more and more every year that you cannot please everyone, it’s impossible. I want to improve myself by being able to create a safe distance from other’s happiness; it’s vital as a physician to do this to avoid burnout, and as a person, it’s a healthier way to live my life.

What is one thing you wish people knew about you?

That I get hangry, if I look like I’m on edge I may not have eaten, just throw a snickers bar at me!

 What is your happiest memory?

Too many happy memories to count or to rank; each day has a special happy memory.

 What is your saddest memory?

Any one of the painful memories with my mom during her health declines; but, with that sadness also came growth.

Tell me about your creative outlets.

I like to paint and dance. I never officially took any advanced art classes, just experimented with water-colors and acrylics. I grew up dancing at family parties (salsa, bachata, cumbia, etc.) and was in the belly dancing club in college. Since starting med school I haven’t really had time to take part in these outlets; I could work on incorporating these into my schedule!

What are you most afraid of?

Losing autonomy

Have you ever questioned whether you wanted to stay in medicine? Describe the moment. How did you convince yourself to continue?

Not really, I am secure in the knowledge that physicians like me are needed: people of color, people who can advocate for the immigrant perspective, people who do not come from money or privilege. That being said, there are often times I feel like I don’t always blend in as well as some of my classmates that had more privileged upbringings. However, I have been operating in these spaces since I moved to the States so it’s nothing new, and certainly not something to deter me from medicine.  

Has there been a time where you knew you were in the exact right place? Tell me about it.

Yes, every time I meet a patient who tells me that one day I will make a great doctor, or, the feeling I get after volunteering at the free clinic; both make me feel like I am right where I’m supposed to be.

How do you keep your mind sharp and your body strong? Do you exercise? Do you read? Do you do crossword puzzles?  

I love running and hiking! Both function as exercise as well as a form of meditation. I also do love to read, haven’t had much time to read anything non-medical in a while, but hopefully there will be more time after Step 1!

Who do you admire and why?

I have a lot of respect and admiration for my uncle. My mom and her siblings lost their mom at a young age; they relied on each other to get through life and my uncle (her brother) was always the ‘dad of the family’. He sacrificed a lot to take care of my mom and pushed me to continue with my education (I contemplated dropping out of college to take care of my mom post-stroke but he pushed me to continue on). I admire him for being a hard-working, loving, great man.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

If you’re reading this and you aspire to become a physician: keep going, don’t give up. Yes, the process is insanely expensive, insanely long, and sometimes just straight-out insane. But if your passion is to help others through medicine, keep pushing, keep finding ways to make it happen. Your unique perspective is needed; your voice is important. To anyone else that may be reading this: Thank you for your time! I hope you reach your goals and help to make this world better, in whatever field you are in.

Thank you, Vanessa, for sharing your story!