Monday, October 16, 2017

Student Leaders

TMA’s Minority Scholarship Program is about more than just money. 

Growing up in El Paso, Amanda Arreola always perceived medical care as a luxury.

Her family didn’t have much money. Both of her parents had only high school degrees; both of their parents were immigrants. “So going to the doctor was not a thing, unless it was an emergency. And if you were to go see a doctor, El Paso was too expensive so you went across the border to seek medical attention in Mexico.”

It wasn’t until she arrived at Baylor University in Waco that she realized the average person doesn’t do that. “There’s no border in the middle of Texas. The disparities were very apparent once I moved. That had a lot to do with why I chose medicine.”

However, excitement over her acceptance into the inaugural class at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) School of Medicine in 2016 soon turned to worry over how she could afford it. She remembers reading the Texas Medical Association (TMA) email announcing she had won TMA’s $10,000 Minority Scholarship. “It was the first step for me that this was actually going to happen. It’s an amazing feeling, and I am so grateful to TMA for that.”

When TMA started the Minority Scholarship Program in 1999, physician pioneers envisioned cultivating a generation of diverse doctors to meet the health needs of Texas’ diverse population. The program — made possible since 2004 with grant funding from Texas Medical Association Foundation (TMAF, TMA’s philanthropic arm) — has since encouraged nearly 200 minority students under-represented in Texas medical schools to enter the profession by lightening their financial load.

Less expected, perhaps, was the cultivation of a generation of budding physician leaders.

The award also introduced Ms. Arreola to organized medicine, since she received it at TMA’s annual policy-making meeting, TexMed. She has since spearheaded the launch of a TMA medical student chapter at UTRGV. As chapter president and reporter on the executive board of TMA’s Medical Student Section (TMA-MSS), Ms. Arreola has recruited more than a dozen students to TexMed and TMA’s First Tuesdays at the Capitol lobbying event in Austin to advocate for issues important to aspiring physicians. She also volunteered at this year’s TMAF gala held during TMA’s annual meeting in Houston.

Now in her second year, her goal is to practice primary care in Texas, “because that’s where the need is.” And in the Valley along the southern tip of Texas in particular, “I would love to do more community outreach. We want people to know they have a school they can go to, do their residency, and stay and practice and keep physicians here. That’s really the goal of the school, to create access.” (Watch this video to see Ms. Arreola and fellow UTRGV students and residents practicing outreach care in Texas’ medically underserved colonias.)

Since 1999, TMA has awarded the annual scholarships to first-year Hispanic, African-American, and Native American students at each of the now 12 Texas medical schools. TMAF grants have helped the program keep pace with school growth and enhance the award amount from $5,000 to $10,000.

“We have so many brilliant minority students who may not have the opportunity if they didn’t have scholarship funding or access to loans. TMAF has been very fortunate with its donors to not only sustain that program, but to grow it,” said TMAF board member and donor E. Linda Villarreal, MD.

The Edinburg internist vividly recalls walking into the bank to borrow money every semester for four years of medical school, even into residency. Dr. Villarreal earned her medical degree from Universidad del Noreste in Tampico, Mexico, before completing residency at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in El Paso.

“The banker got to know when I would be walking into the bank, and I sometimes felt like he thought, ‘Oh no, here she comes again.’ I did not have financial support from anybody,” she said.

Nowadays, students can leave medical school with debt loads reaching as high as $200,000, or more.

“It’s pressure enough dealing with medical school, regardless of where you go. The last thing you need is to worry about money,” Dr. Villarreal said. The Minority Scholarship Program “is an investment in TMA because [students] are going to know TMA helped them and they are going to come back, and that’s paying it forward.”

Matthew Edwards, MD, saw that investment come full circle: He, too, was introduced to TMA through TMAF as a 2012 scholarship awardee, which eventually opened his path to residency at Stanford University. Before he left Texas this summer — where he hopes to return one day to practice — The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston graduate helped grow the scholarship program as a member of the TMAF board and the TMA-MSS executive council.

“It expands the opportunity for more individuals from unique backgrounds that may be under represented in medicine to also get involved in organized medicine and help advance those issues and causes and perspectives. And that’s another very important prong in [TMA’s] mission to improve the health care of all Texans,” Dr. Edwards said. “It’s a reminder the buck doesn’t stop with you. The mission will keep going, and it highlights the importance of leadership and mentorship.”

Like Ms. Arreola, Dr. Edwards didn’t notice the health care disparities growing up in his low income African-American community in Dallas until he left for Princeton University. Also the first in his family to go to college, he remembers his initial thoughts. “Coming from an underserved background, there can be a little culture shock and hesitancy to put yourself out there,” he said. Beyond the monetary value of the scholarship, “having an organization that has faith in your goals and your contribution to medicine has symbolic meaning I can always look back on.”

Dr. Edwards sees his experiences in medical school, organized medicine, and public health coming full circle as he pursues a career in academic psychiatry.

“Most academic centers are smack in the middle of major areas that pull from different communities and almost always see disparities,” he said. “Being a doctor is more than learning how to practice medicine. It’s learning to empathize with people similar to and different from you.”

Nearly 500 physicians, as well as many county medical societies and corporations, have supported the TMA Minority Scholarship Program with a tax-deductible gift to TMAF — and it’s an investment that pays.

“This is an investment in our children. This is an investment in your mother having a doctor,” Dr. Villarreal said.

To support the scholarship fund and explore TMAF’s many other philanthropic initiatives, visit the TMAF website.

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