The Value of Liking School - Dr. C Unzueta


My patients call me doctora. I’m still not used to it, but I love it. I like the idea of improving their health and easing their troubles. I have to admit that I had many doubts and waves of emotion along the way, but I’m very glad that I learned to push myself forward. What helped me immensely was that I’d always like school. School mattered to me. I wanted to do well and I actually liked learning. Although I didn't know where I was heading, I was unknowingly building positive habits that were going to help me later on in medical school. Important experiences made some days difficult and others great. I should have known that I would become a doctor, but I had no idea. I was a typical shy, quiet, and awkward teenager that was unsure about her future. There were clues along the way, but I just couldn’t see them at the time. The first clue came in high school when our teacher walked in to tell the class that we were going to dissect a frog. My friends looked nervous, disgusted, and horrified. I was excited.

"I have to admit that I had many doubts and waves of emotion along the way, but I’m very glad that I learned to push myself forward".

I remember volunteering to break the rib cage. Nobody in my group had an issue with that. I thought that only students on TV shows and movies do this stuff. It’s so common to see frogs sitting on a leaf in a pond or jumping around all over the place. But looking inside one and understanding their internal workings was so interesting to me. This experience was a whole new level of anatomy and biology! I was exploring and better understanding a complicated living organism, kind of similar to people. I could see the organs, tendons, and muscles that we only saw in books. In the past, they were just boring pictures in books. What was in front of me was the real thing. How cool is that! My interest in science was sparked by this experience. I was intrigued by anything having to do with science, anatomy, and biology. Still, I had no idea I would become a doctor.

I was the type of student that fell asleep on books. I took school seriously for as far back as I can remember. I liked the idea of being smart, or learning in order to feel smart. I was always humbled to know that there is so much to know out there. I saw smart teachers and students and was curious to know what they knew. I studied for exams and my homework was always done. I called myself studious, but my family would say I was a nerd. Oh, and bossy! I was ok with that though! Like I said, I liked learning. I figured that sports were not my strong point, so I decided to focus on academics. Mom used to say “tienes una gran paciencia” every time she saw me doing something at my own pace. In other words, homework took me forever, but that was just me. Doing well in high school was important because teachers noticed me and wanted to help me do well. They recommended that I take honors classes, which were cool. I knew I could handle harder classes because I knew that my discipline would help me.

"My interest in science was sparked by this experience. I was intrigued by anything having to do with science, anatomy, and biology. Still, I had no idea I would become a doctor".

Teachers were a big part in wanting me to learn. Early on, many of my teachers were old, which meant that those classes were slow and hard to get into. A program called Teach for America came to our school. The teachers were young, relatable, and cool. They knew what music and trends we were into, and we had simple conversations about life. The older teachers and the ones who really didn't care simply taught and then tested us. Good teachers became part of my motivation in school. Also, most students around me were talking about college. The culture around me helped me see myself as a successful college student. The struggles came when I didn't have a teacher beside me to provide direction. Looking back, I made a big mistake when it was time to apply for college - I didn't ask for help. For no good reason I applied for college on my own. I practically filled out college application alone and mom helped me with filling out financial aid portions. It took us several sit-downs to complete the process. It was so stressful being unsure if we were doing everything correctly. I should have asked for help! Still, it was worth it. I was finally on my way. I decided to attend the University of Illinois. It was time to move out and explore the world on my own. It think moving out was hard for everyone in my family, but everyone was on board because school was always important in our home. My talks with grandmother were often about the importance of school. The fact that she was a teacher back in Mexico was definitely a factor. She was strict, which I think helped me with being disciplined. As a little girl I remember grandpa taken on the responsibility of dropping me off and picking me up from school. My parents were also supportive of my education because they came from humble beginnings. Work was a way of life for them. I became the first in my family to go to college. I was proud and my family was also proud of me. I was ready for the next chapter in my life, but becoming a doctor was still far from my wildest dreams! My major was Community Health because I wanted to work in the health field. If anything, I was interested in doing physical therapy because the thought of becoming a doctor seemed so impossible.

"The struggles came when I didn't have a teacher beside me to provide direction. Looking back, I made a big mistake when it was time to apply for college - I didn't ask for help. For no good reason I applied for college on my own".

A major reason I did well throughout college was because I had the discipline to put in the time to get my work done. I didn't have perfect grades, but I did well because school was a priority. It actually took effort to make school a priority. I started working in the dining hall sophomore year and was dating. Distractions were everywhere! I had to learn to manage work, social life and school. At some point I had to move out of the dorms and into a small apartment off campus because it was more economical. I’m embarrassed to say that I had to cram when I was unsuccessful at balancing everything. Those days were stressful. And the information seemed to disappear after tests. I saw many friends that lost their way trying to manage everything. I had the belief that no matter what I was going through I wanted to do well in school. It wasn't until my senior year in college that I pondered for the very first time the idea of becoming a doctor.

As part of my major, we were required to do a semester long internship during our senior year in an area of our choice. I was lucky to have a good counselor that helped me along the way. My counselor suggested that I shadow a director as part of my internship, but that sounded boring. I figured that shadowing a doctor would be more interesting. My counselor wasn't sure if it was possible, but I’d learn to become outspoken. I was persistent with the idea, asked, and was approved. I feel so fortunate because I was able to relate to the doctor that I shadowed. He was nice, respectful, and was soft spoken. I was determined to take advantage of the hands on experience. I often walked right next to him as he walked into each waiting room to see his patients. Most interactions were simple, but extremely important. The interactions dealt with physical checkups, concerns about pain, and monitoring existing health issues. I never realized how important listening was to doctors.

"I had the belief that no matter what I was going through I wanted to do well in school. It wasn't until my senior year in college that I pondered for the very first time the idea of becoming a doctor".

One particular occasion left a lasting impression within me that changed my life forever. A patient didn't agree with the medication she was given by the doctor. Although the doctor politely provided a rationale for the prescription, the patient became louder and angrier. I sat there uncomfortably thinking that the situation was getting out of hand. Things were escalating quickly. As it progressed in the wrong direction the doctor took control. He paused, suggested that they both start the conversation again to better understand one another. He listened. In a split second, the patient appeared to calm down and made an attempt to have a productive conversation. The moment was simple, but important. The conversation started over and became about understanding and compromise. He listened and considered other situations that were affecting his patient. In turn, she was willing accept the treatment. And ultimately, this meant that his patient walked out feeling better. The situation was about taking control of a difficult situation and providing care even when there is resistance, which was common.

As I think back about my experiences throughout the internship, I realize that being a doctor is about science, medicine, conducting tests for lab work, surgery, and helping people manage illnesses. As important though, doctors need to go beyond heartbeats and charts to gather other important information about their patients. There are other factors outside the body that affect people’s health such as stress, money, and access. These broader circumstances also affect health choices and problems. Learning about these important issues firsthand gave me new perspectives about my career options. The internship inspired me to pursue the health field, but for the first time as a medical doctor. I liked the challenge, the hospital culture, and the idea that I could help improve people’s health problems. The idea was life changing; the only problem was that I was drastically behind in applying and preparing for the entrance exam.

Soon, I panicked as I realized that I had to apply for med school and pass an entrance exam that was known for being a giant obstacle. Most students graduate and go straight into medical school because they prepared and applied much sooner than the last semester of their senior year. Nonetheless, I decided to begin studying. I took a prep course that was very helpful. Unfortunately, I still did poorly on the MCAT. I felt good and prepared, but I think that the pressure got to me. I was heartbroken, but I kept moving forward. I started working at a pulmonology lab straight out of college. The previous summer I’d also become part of a program that was for underrepresented students in medicine, which became a great resource. I was placed in Dr. Garcia’s lab as an assistant researcher. He became a great mentor and supporter! He’d known my plans for med school. I was so embarrassed to share my exam results with him. He went straight for it and asked about my score. I put my head down and told him. His response was simple, but helpful. He said, “Ok, study more and take it again”. And so that was the plan. I respected his work, his leadership, and his words. I stopped sulking on my setback, refocused, and began to dedicate more hours studying. I focused on figuring out my mistakes. I realized that the prep courses taught me the right strategies, but I just needed more time to prepare. I had doubts, but applied. The added study time amounted to better exam scores, and strong recommendation letters did the job. The interview process was next. When asked why I wanted to become a doctor I referenced back to internship experiences, my interests in science, and deep desire to help people in underserved populations, which is where I came from. I waited for the news nervously for days, but I was in. I was finally admitted into med school.

"I liked the challenge, the hospital culture, and the idea that I could help improve people’s health problems. The idea was life changing; the only problem was that I was drastically behind in applying and preparing for the entrance exam".

There is a common saying among med school students. They say, “Learning in medical school is like trying to drink water from a fire hydrant”. They’re so right! Med school was hard, and became even harder as each year progressed. There were days that made me feel proud. High points came each time I deeply understood the material we covered in lectures and labs. Passing each exam was always a great feeling and accomplishment because I knew that I’d worked hard. Cramming and simply memorizing in med school is not an option. I had to learn to review the material constantly and to study with friends. Studying in small groups really helped. I must have gone through tons of flash cards. We take what are called shelf exams after core rotations. By our third year we are placed in teaching hospitals where we are implementing what we learned the first two years in the classroom. We rotate within different core discipline such as family medicine, pediatrics, surgery, and OB-GYN. Well, my lowest point came when I failed a shelf exam. We are given another opportunity to take it, but it costs time, money, and confidence. I felt down.

Quitting was never a thought because I was so invested and determined, but at some point I thought they would kick me out. I’d studied, but it wasn’t enough. I was working well alongside doctors and other residents, absorbing as much as I could, but this shelf exam seemed like a wall I couldn't overcome. I decided to ask for help. Honestly, I was hesitant because I didn't want anyone to think that I was dumb. I decided to try anyway because it was far more important to advance than to think about what other people thought of me. I’d heard about the Latino Medical Student Association, which is an organization that supports medical students throughout med school. They offered peer-to-peer mentorship. They were simply mentors that were also medical students that were one or two years ahead. They’d gone through what I was going through. I decided to meet with a mentor.

"There were days that made me feel proud. High points came each time I deeply understood the material we covered in lectures and labs. Passing each exam was always a great feeling and accomplishment because I knew that I’d worked hard".

We began having pretty simple conversations about life as a med student. She was very relatable and intelligent. She had detailed responses for all of my questions. I wanted know more about her process. How did she learn so much and so well? She mentioned that she studied by talking about the material and taking in information from different perspectives, rather than simply reading and reviewing. Then she shared that she had also failed an exam, which was hard for me to believe. She reminded me that the exams were not necessarily a matter of intelligence, but more about adapting to new ways of learning and preparation. When that is insufficient, adding more time and asking for help are the next steps. I realize that I was trying to take in too much. With her advice and tips, I passed my exam and continued to pursue my dreams. Another high point came when I was elected among my peers as a chief resident, which meant that I was a liaison between residents, doctors and other faculty. I was surprised but also humbled. I bonded with other residents and we developed a work family. We were always excited to be part of new situations and experiences. Our minds were always thinking, planning, and problem solving. We constantly checked in with one another for support and to check our approach to ensure the best care. The experiences that followed taught me about leadership and amplified my confidence to finish strong. I was looking forward to graduation. That day came and it was simply glorious! I’d managed to conquer medical school, form lifetime friendships, and get married to an amazing man that encouraged me along the way. My family was so happy for me. I was done and was ready for anything that came my way. Just a short time after graduation I was hired as a practicing family doctor. And I love it.

"That day came and it was simply glorious! I’d managed to conquer medical school, form lifetime friendships, and get married to an amazing man that encouraged me along the way. My family was so happy for me".

I’ve learned many lessons along the way, but here are the most important. First, high school does matter. I cared about school, which helped me build positive habits that gave me the confidence to know that I could pursue college and med school. Liking school was such a simple thought, but it turned out to be more important than I thought. I wasn't the best student early on and I had no idea what my future would bring, but I was building confidence. For any young girl on her way, I would say that confidence is important. Find different ways to build confidence! This means study, read, speak up, and go for it. Doubt is natural, but be willing to do the work. Confidence will emerge after the hard work. Asking for help is key. I also learned that mentors are important to success. Mentors have gone through the process and succeeded. They have so much to offer. They’re inspiring! Mentors open up our minds to what is possible and provide much needed reassurance, and confidence. And lastly, I’ve learned that taking on new experiences is so important. I didn't know that I wanted to become a doctor or that I could be an influential leader, but experiences outside the classroom revealed new possibilities. Unexpectedly, I was recently asked by my management team to take on a leadership role. I hesitated, but said yes. I’m sure that this promotion is yet another experience that will help me grow. I’m very excited for what’s to come as a family doctor and leader.

"High school does matter. I cared about school, which helped me build positive habits that gave me the confidence to know that I could pursue college and med school. Liking school was such a simple thought, but it turned out to be more important than I thought".