The Fueling Force of Family: How Maria Martinez, Rising MS1, Continued To Pursue a Career in Medicine

My name is Maria Gabriela Martinez. I am a Dominican-American, Afro-Latina, who loves cortaditos, mangú, and exploring my surrounding communities. I graduated with a B.S. in Psychology in May of 2014. During this past year I applied to medical schools and I’m grateful to share that I am one step closer to becoming a doctor. However, none of this would have been possible without the incredible support system that I have in my family, friends, and mentors. These relationships have played a pivotal role in shaping the development of my identity and mission as an aspiring physician.

My desire to pursue a career in medicine stems from the relationship that I have with my older brother, Carlos. He was diagnosed with autism when he was four years old. As a child, I struggled to understand him because I noticed that our interactions were different than those that I shared with other friends or saw in other siblings. I often found myself in situations repeatedly having to explain my brother’s behavior. In department stores, I would have to explain to the cashier why he chose to unwrap the Barry White CD prior to purchasing it. In restaurants, I would have to mediate during behavioral outbursts and educate employees on the environmental stimuli that could sporadically trigger someone with autism. However, being my brother’s advocate never felt like a burden. In fact, his condition inspired me to want to learn more about developmental disabilities. The more interest I took in understanding my brother, the more I began to notice the discrepancy between how I saw him and his capabilities, and how society viewed them. That awareness and the drive that I felt to bridge that gap would serve as the fueling force that would direct me towards my growing mission.

Because of Carlos’ diagnosis, I spent a great deal of time with him in examining rooms. I would entertain him in conversations about Jeopardy and Full House, while my mother asked physicians questions related to recent behavioral changes and medications. As I would hear her strong and confident accent fill the room, I also noticed the hesitancy that certain providers would express in attempting to understand her. Frequently, I was asked to jump into conversations and translate on both accounts. In those moments, I once again noticed discrepancies. I was unconsciously being introduced to the health disparities that both individuals with disabilities and minorities face within the healthcare system. What stood out the most to me was the stark lack of representation that was evident in nearly every office that we stepped into. A particular perspective and presence was missing in those spaces, and as a Latina and the sibling of someone with a disability, I yearned to understand how I could fill that space.

When I started college, I entered with my mind set on a career in medicine. Medicine was a career choice that seamlessly combined my love for the human body and the passion that I felt to advocate, especially in regards to matters of health. I envisioned a set path before me, and was under the impression that the next four years would be a continuation of my high school achievements. 

However, as an undergraduate I encountered experiences that led me to reevaluate how I viewed my identity in the context of academics, culture, and purpose. The first two years were challenging.  I had always considered myself to be a hard-working and dedicated student, but the grades in my core courses were not accurately reflecting that. Having to retake general chemistry and biology led me into a spiral of uncertainty. I remained in doubt of my future as college advisors suggested that I begin looking into other careers options. For so long, much of my identity had been closely tied to my academic achievements. My carefully orchestrated “route to medical school” was crumbling before me and I struggled to distance myself from an avalanche of negative thoughts. “Papi, no creo que voy a poder ser Doctora,” I mumbled to my father through the phone, under a puddle of tears. My father attended medical school in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. He completed his residency in Newark, New Jersey, and has been practicing as a specialist in Allergy & Immunology in Florida for more than 25 years. 

More importantly, he is my greatest mentor and advocate. The greatest piece of advice my father gave me during that time was to rest. He could sense the urgency that I felt to rush my journey and reminded me that “Lo que esta para tí, nadie te lo quita.” I began to realize how important it was to set boundaries. For my own well-being, I had to take a step back. Doing that was the best decision I could have made because it pushed me to genuinely reflect on the reasons why I wanted to pursue a career in medicine.

As I put a pause on my pre-medical courses, I dove deeper into topics of psychology and explored extracurriculars that interested me. In the process, I stumbled upon a Behavioral Medicine Research Team that was looking for volunteers. The team’s primary focus was to further understand and address the health disparities encountered by minorities, specifically in the rural regions of Gainesville. Up until this point, I had identified as a minority but did not entirely understand the full scope of what it meant to be a minority in the context of healthcare.  As I mentioned earlier, my experiences growing up with my family in healthcare settings introduced me to some of the biases that Latinx populations face, but I knew that I still had more to learn.  

As an Associate Director of Research, I had the opportunity to work in a variety of settings that allowed me to develop meaningful relationships with black and brown communities. In local AME churches, we worked with church leaders to understand ways to overcome health behavior barriers, and taught them how to share that knowledge with their community members. Through our project with the Equal Care Access Clinic, I translated questionnaires in Spanish and learned the importance of cultural competency in regards to quality patient-provider relationships. This growing understanding of health disparities further reassured me of the significance of my representation within the medical field. 

The spark that I needed to continue pacing forward was ignited once more and I felt myself moving in the direction of my goal with a more tangible purpose. I began to retake the courses that had previously planted doubt in my mind, and humbly sought help where I needed it. This time around, I would not cave in the face of failure. This time around, I was determined to grow and continue moving forward. I knew that I would not be able to complete all of my pre-medical prerequisites before graduation, so I decided to graduate with my degree in psychology and continue taking courses back home.

When I moved back to Orlando, I enrolled at the University of Central Florida as a non-degree seeking student. I completed my prerequisites, and decided to also enroll in other courses that would expand my science background. I noticed an improved sense of confidence in myself the immediate moment that I stopped comparing my journey to that of others. I carried that confidence with me, and witnessed as it opened more doors of opportunity. During my time at UCF, I worked as a teacher assistant for immunology, anatomy, and clinical neuroscience. I continue to reflect on the fact that I never would have had these experiences had it not been for my setbacks.

As I sit here, cathartically reminiscing, I am overcome with gratitude to see how far I have come. This journey is certainly not an easy one, but the lessons that are learned along the way are priceless. For anyone that is struggling to envision themselves in a space where they feel poorly represented or supported, keep moving forward. Let yourself feel whatever you need to feel and acknowledge it, but do not let it consume you.  Rest and re-evaluate what your mission is. Once you discover your mission, recognize that you offer a perspective that deserves to take up space. More importantly, celebrate the communities that have brought you this far, and carry them with you on this beautiful journey. Y recuerda, que “lo que esta para tí, nadie te lo quita.”

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