|More than 2,000 miles separate Eagle Pass, Texas, where Jose Figueroa spent his early years, and Boston, Massachusetts, where he is in his first year at Harvard Medical School. The most amazing part of the journey has been how his beliefs about medicine and doctors have changed along the way.
While his accomplishments are remarkable, Figueroa exemplifies the many University of Houston College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics alumni who go on to medical school each year. Increasingly these medical schools, such as Harvard−ranked number one by U.S. News and World Report in terms of research—are top rated.
One of six children, Figueroa was raised on the Texas border before moving with his family to Freeport on the Gulf Coast. When the youngsters were sick, their mother and grandmother called on traditional Mexican remedies. Only serious illness prompted a visit to their “doctor,” the hospital emergency room.
“Other children in our humble neighborhood experienced similar situations, and some unfortunately never came back, probably because their illness had progressed too far,” Figueroa said. “My siblings and I thus developed some fear of the ‘white coats,’ for we knew that we must be really sick whenever we came before them.
“It is interesting, however, that my mother, grandmother, my neighbors, my siblings, and even myself all accepted this way of health care and did not know of another.”
Not until Figueroa entered high school did he begin to question the appropriateness of this limited access to medical care.
“I began witnessing other children being taken to the doctor for what I thought were small, insignificant things like a little coughing or headaches,” he said.
“What makes their state different from ours? Why do we only visit the doctor when we are in serious health danger?” he asked. “And so began my quest to become a physician.”
That quest brought Figueroa to UH, where he majored in biology and minored in chemistry. He also participated in the Honors College and the Houston-Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation.
In December 2005, he interviewed at Harvard. He received a letter in mid-March of this year informing him of his acceptance for the fall.
“I just could not believe that I was fortunate to gain admittance to the school of my dreams,” he said. “I remember just embracing the letter, immersing myself in a prayer of thankfulness and then proceeding to calling my family and some close friends. Without a doubt this was one of the best days of my life.”
Figueroa’s early experience led to the realization that social and cultural factors influence disease outcomes and access to health care among different ethnic groups. He also recognized the need to remedy the situation to avoid a national health-care crisis, he said.
“I hope to dedicate my future as a physician, and hopefully as a social scientist, to help revolutionize the understanding of health-care delivery, access, and associated challenges to alleviate the suffering from health-care inadequacies in general and from disparities in particular,” he said.
Joshua Udoetuk’s medical studies also have taken him out of state, to the number-three-ranked University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
Unlike Figueroa, Udoetuk envisioned a health career from an early age. Growing up in Sunnyside, a neighborhood a few miles south of UH, Udoetuk and his sister often accompanied their mother, a neonatal intensive care nurse, to Texas Children’s Hospital.
“Being around all those ill children and seeing the swagger of the physicians as they cared for them probably is where my interests began,” he said. “When I got to UH, I was more focused on going into dentistry.
“I began to seriously consider medicine after I fell in love with neuroscience during my sophomore year. I then spent some time working in the lab with Associate Professor of Biology Costa Colbert (MD, PhD) when I realized that I might be interested in treating patients with neurological disorders. I finally decided to pursue medicine definitively later that same summer after volunteering in a hospice.”
A biology major and Scholar Enrichment Program participant, Udoetuk graduated from UH in 2004 and now is in his third year of medical school. He hadn’t even considered applying to the University of Pennsylvania, however, until he met his future wife, Sade. Originally from Barbados and raised in New York, Sade was in Houston to do research at Baylor College of Medicine for a couple of months.
“She was preparing to begin medical school at Penn, and the way she hyped up the place, I had to check it out for myself,” Udoetuk said.
Now married and the parents of an eight-month-old daughter, the couple both will graduate from medical school in 2008. He is considering several specialty fields, including orthopedic surgery and ophthalmology. But his most memorable experience so far has been caring for an extremely ill malaria patient during an internal medicine rotation.
“I honestly did not know if he would survive the first night, but he did,” Udoetuk said. “And, as we treated him, everyday thereafter he looked a thousand times better than the day before. He was so thankful that we had saved his life so he could return home to see his infant son again.
“Being a new father myself, I felt such empathy and joy for him. It was a tremendous privilege for me to be a part of the team that helped save his life, and I will never forget that experience. To me that’s what medicine is all about—healing.”
Another successful NSM graduate, Erica Ruger, MD, also decided on a medical career early on.
A native of Decatur, Georgia, who was raised in Houston, Ruger attended the Michael E. DeBakey High School for Health Professions. Later, majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry, she graduated from UH in 2002 and from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, Dallas, this year.
Ruger began the first year of an obstetrics and gynecology residency at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston this fall.
Her workday may not match the seemingly ceaseless schedule of the medical team on television’s ER, but it comes close. Arriving at LBJ General Hospital at 5:30 a.m., she starts her rounds by seeing patients who recently have given birth. Then it’s on to obstetrics triage, akin to an obstetrical emergency room, and later the delivery room.
“I see the patients and determine whether or not they will be admitted to the hospital,” Ruger said. “I am also the delivery doc, which means I deliver babies after the mother has labored.”
"Also, I do primary cesarean sections−C-sections on mothers who have not had a prior section−and bilateral tubal ligations, or tying the fallopian tubes,” she said. “Essentially, I rotate between these three areas until 5:30 p.m. A typical day will end around 6:00 P.M.”
Ruger, who also participated in the Scholar Enrichment Program while at UH, said that the NSM curriculum prepared her for “the rigors of medical school.”
“All of those hours counting flies in the genetics lab did eventually pay off,” she said, “even though I know no one is ever going to ask me to separate male and female flies at the hospital.”
Similarly, Udoetuk and Figueroa say NSM placed them in good stead.
“My education at the University of Houston was truly extraordinary, and attending UH has been without a doubt one of the greatest decisions I have made in my life,” Figueroa said.
Part of becoming a physician necessitates gaining awareness of and sensitivity to people from different cultural backgrounds, he said.
“Since the University of Houston is considered one of the most diverse academic institutions in the nation, my preparation in this aspect thus far has been extraordinary,” he said. “I hope that one day I will use all the knowledge I have gained to help me properly care for patients with different values, beliefs, and behaviors with the utmost respect.”
Udoetuk also cites UH’s cultural diversity as helping prepare him for a medical career.
“There are so many people of many various backgrounds that one learns to adapt culturally—a lesson not learned in books or classrooms,” he said. “Additionally the camaraderie among students at UH is unique and always helped me remain down to earth despite the complexity and stress associated with school work and getting into medical school.
“To that end, I believe cultural sensitivity and humanism are among the greatest skills a modern physician can wield.”