Representation Matters in Medicine

Jose Calderon '22
Jose Calderon ’22

Written by Jose Calderon ’22 

In my senior year at the University of Southern California (USC), I volunteered to teach fifth and eighth grade students the basics of human anatomy and physiology. Located in South Central Los Angeles, the elementary/middle school was predominantly black and Hispanic, with most if not all students coming from low-income households. The kids surprised me every session with their brilliance and curiosity on these science topics. I remember one kid in particular who had asthma and was able to break down the mechanism of action of bronchodilators­. I often challenged these kids about attending college and pursuing medicine as a career, but there was always a common barrier when thinking about their educational journey: money. USC was less than two miles down the road and for many of them that was their dream school. They had no relatives that went there and they would often say that “I must come from money” or “you must be a genius” because I was a student there. I was neither. There’s this systematic mindset in impoverished communities about attending college and the cost of attendance. As I nudged these kids more about the topic, common responses included the need to work and save money before attending college, or going to a community college first because it’s cheaper and then transferring to a university. However, parents see the price tag of many of these schools and deter their kids from even applying. The dream dies at that point. Now imagine an additional $200,000 debt to attend med school? This is a number that most low-income families cannot rationalize.

As a first-generation middle/high school graduate, college graduate, U.S. Marine, and now medical student, it is my duty to serve as a role model for my community. Racial and ethnic minorities remain underrepresented in the U.S. physician workforce. For example, people who identify as Hispanic or Latinx comprise four percent of total physicians, a shocking number considering the population is made up of 52 million Hispanics or 17 percent of the national population. I recall my time as a volunteer at the emergency department in the Los Angeles General Hospital in East L.A. At the beginning of every shift I would enthusiastically search each physician’s badge with hope of discovering a Latin/Hispanic last name. I would even switch the days of my shift thinking it would improve my chances. I was disappointed 97 percent of the time.

In retrospect, times have not changed much. While I didn’t go to the doctor often growing up due to lack of health insurance, I never once came across a Spanish speaking physician. To be quite honest, I didn’t know anyone with a professional degree (in any race). Representation matters in medicine, and I believe it is critical to increase all efforts on this issue. Many of my family members and friends would often wait until the very last minute to receive care, including my own father. He had developed kidney stones and was in excruciating pain. As a single parent, money was tight growing up so he could not and would not take time off from work. Only when the pain became unbearable did he seek medical care. He did well and eventually recovered, but when I remember fumbling with words at ten years old, trying to translate medical terminology between the patient and physician, I am motivated to continue my journey. I would never want any child to have to live this experience.

In South Central Los Angeles, brown and black kids at the eighth grade level are already thinking about money as a limiting factor in attending college. Should they reach the point of applying to medical school (which I hope they do), more roadblocks will come along – roadblocks that perhaps they aren’t even aware of. A $1,200-plus MCAT preparation packet may be questioned, as that money could be diverted to help parents pay rent. Or feeling guilty about buying a $100 new suit for interviews when that money could be channeled toward groceries or other household expenses. I struggled with both challenges when applying to medical school. As a low-income student, every day I am learning to be better at not letting finances dictate my life and mental well-being. I do still find myself replacing that $5.49 chicken at the grocery store for the one that costs $4.97. It’s a mentality that helps me prepare for a future rainy day, and because of my upbringing, probably one that will never go away. As a kid, my goal to meet a brown Latinx in a white coat never did come to fruition, but to be in this position is an absolute privilege and one that will stay with me as I continue to extend my hand to those in most need.

What are your thoughts about this topic?