Chapter 01: Growing Up in a Migrant-Worker Family

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Chapter 01: Growing Up in a Migrant-Worker Family

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Description

In this segment, Dr. Rodriguez recalls her early life when her parents worked as migrant workers in the fields of Texas and in California. She talks about the effect of experiences in her neighborhood on her later life and recalls the huge range of illnesses she saw in her community where there was little medical care. Dr. Rodriguez also characterizes her parents as “survivors” who were committed to family. She recalls that her family was very frugal, but she never felts as though she lacked for anything.

Identifier

RodriguezA_01_20150220_C01

Publication Date

2-20-2015

City

Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

The Interview Subject - Personal Background; Character, Values, Beliefs, Talents; Personal Background; Influences from People and Life Experiences

Transcript

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

OK, so we are recording. And I’m Tacey Ann Rosolowski. Today is the 20th of February, 2015, and I am interviewing Dr. Alma Rodriguez for the Making Cancer History Voice Oral History Project run by the Historical Resources Center at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. Dr. Rodriguez came to MD Anderson in 1986 as an instructor, laboratory research and clinician in the Department of Internal Medicine. I have that correct?

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Yes, well, I actually don’t recall what it was called at the time.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Oh, OK.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

It was in the section of lymphoma and myeloma.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

OK. OK.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

I believe it was called Cancer Medicine, actually.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

OK. And since 2005, she has served as Vice President of Medical Affairs.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

That is correct.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

OK. She has a primary appointment as internist and professor of medicine in the Department of Lymphoma/Myeloma, Division of Cancer Medicine. OK, great. I’ll also say that Dr. Rodriguez contributed a chapter to the book Legends and Legacies, produced by Women Faculty Programs, and I say that just for reference purposes to anyone listening to the interview.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Mm-hmm.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

This session is being held in Dr. Rodriguez’ office and the Office of the Executive Vice President and Physician in Chief in Pickens Tower on the main campus of MD Anderson, and this is the first of two planned interview sessions. The time is twenty-seven minutes after ten. Thank you, Dr. Rodriguez for agreeing to take the time to do this interview.  

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Well, I wanted to start kind of with regular background information and I wanted to ask you where you were born, and when.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

I was born in Robstown, Texas on September 11th, 1953.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

And tell me a little bit about your years growing up.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Well, I grew up in a migrant family. We used to move from place to place, following, if you will, crops. As a child, one of my first memories is of following my parents around in the cotton fields. There were no babysitters, so they would take us with them. I thought about that as I’ve grown older, and as I’m more familiar with the risks of pesticides and herbicides, which I’m sure we were exposed to as children, both my sister and I. But that was our childhood, following our parents as they were doing their jobs in the fields.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Now, did you stay within Texas? Or, did you—

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Yes. Early on, yes, we were in Texas. Later on, during my junior high to high school years, somehow my parents got wind of the crops in California, the agricultural business in California, and that it paid better than in the State of Texas. And it was seasonal, so we could leave. By that time, we were much more settled, and we would attend school for the full school year, but in the summer, we would drive all the way to California—

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Wow.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Spend the summer working there, usually in the grape fields, and come back for the start of the school year.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Wow. Wow. You know, as I read some of your story about that in the essay that you did for Legends and Legacies, I wondered, you know, as you reflect back on that time, was there anything about that experience of work, you know, the context, that influenced how you thought about healthcare later on, or that gave you some particular insights that affected the delivery of care?

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Not particularly, not the migrant working experience. But actually, my neighborhood, in my experience with relatives and friends of my family, when I went to medical school, I was astonished as I thought back of the huge range of illnesses that I had observed, growing up. There was someone in our neighborhood who now, I retrospectively could say, he was a paranoid schizophrenic, there was a family who lived next to us that all had a genetic disorder of degeneration of muscles. And one by one, all the male children—this was a dominant inherited condition—and one by one all the male children over the years would begin to show weakness in their gait, and eventually would become paralyzed, and all of them died as young teenagers.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

My God.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

When another lady, who was a neighbor, I remember after her pregnancy began to develop a very large abdomen, which apparently was from fluid retention related to a valve that was dysfunctional. So I vaguely remember all of these stories, and she died also very young. And her children were very young, and were left orphaned. I just of all that. And one of my grandparents died of COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease], another one died of diabetes at home. One of my cousins died in a fire from burnt skin. So one of my childhood playmates had what now I retrospectively know was tetralogy of Fallot, his face was purple all the time. And I wondered about that, why his color was so different from the rest of us. And now I know he must have had a cardiac deformity, a congenital cardiac deformity, and couldn’t oxygenate his blood. And so he looked purple all the time. And he died when I was six years old. So, I’m just thinking I did have an experience going through childhood. Death was not an uncommon event in our lives. And people had a whole slew of different illness manifestations, not to mention infectious illnesses; as a child I suffered from some sort of infectious illness, I don’t know what it was. But I do know it probably was a form of meningitis, because I was unconscious for several days. And it was only as an adult that my parents told me that they thought I was going to die. So, you know, that was my experience growing up.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Right.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

My exposure to health, or poor health, I should say.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Right. Or poor health. No, I assume that in not every case where these individuals that were close to you, they were treated by physicians or not? I mean, very little healthcare—

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Very little healthcare.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Yeah, I assume that. Yeah. Yeah. So interesting that you remember, recall all that. I mean, did it have—I mean, how do you think about that now? I mean, what does it—did it have an effect in your selection of specialty and any of that, do you feel? Or was it really just back context that was—

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

I think that it’s just back context. I mean, my selection of specialty really came more from my direct experience taking care of patients, as I was doing my training.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Yeah. That’s a really astonishing experience, you know, to have that in your background. Tell me a little bit more about your family. How many kids were in the family?

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Just two of us.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Oh, really? Wow. So that’s a pretty small family.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Yeah.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

And what—were there—what were lessons learned? You know, tell me a little bit about the character of your parents and kind of how they maybe influenced you as a person.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Well, they were survivors. I mean, that’s the best I can describe of them. They were very committed to family, I mean, that was one thing I learned from them. Not just to us, but they were committed to their own elderly parents, to the care of their own elders. We had a very large extended family that we were in communication with. They were very frugal, so being cautious about how, when to use the small resources that we had. Obviously, we were poor given their occupation. But retrospectively, you know, I never did lack anything. I never—I was never conscious of lacking in essentials. I mean, we always had food, we always had shelter, we always had clothing. And obviously, we had a family. So to us, you know, growing up, I never knew that there was anything else different from that.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Yeah. And your sibling, brother or—

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

My sister? A sister.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Sister. And tell me your parents’ and your sister’s names.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

My father’s name was Ricardo. My mother’s name was Olivia, and my sister is also Olivia.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Oh, is she older?

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

She’s younger.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Younger.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

I was the older child. And by the way, my sister was also born with a cardiac defect, with a septal defect that sealed over time, it was a transitory event, but—

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Did they know that at the time?

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Yes.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Your parents had some real scares with their children.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Mm-hmm.

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Chapter 01: Growing Up in a Migrant-Worker Family

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