Chapter 03: Going to Medical School

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Chapter 03: Going to Medical School

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In this segment, Dr. Rodriguez talks about her decision to go to medical school and describes her experience at the UT Medical School in Houston, Texas (degree conferred in 1979). She recalls that African-American students from Baylor College of Medicine came to Our Lady of the Lake College to talk about summer research projects at Baylor and recruit minority students to medical school. She applied to the research program, was accepted, and the experience encouraged her to consider applying to medical school. Dr. Rodriguez talks about getting a full-tuition scholarship to the Medical School in Houston and recalls the reactions of her family to this new move. She also talks about the unique and grueling three-year program and reviews the pros and cons of the different specialties she considered. Dr. Rodriguez speaks about a rotation at MD Anderson. She talks about the “personality” of cancer patients, who were so appreciative of care, and explains the features of oncology that appealed to her (though she did not decide to go into oncology at this point).

Identifier

RodriguezA_01_20150220_C03

Publication Date

2-20-2015

City

Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

Educational Path; Character, Values, Beliefs, Talents; Personal Background; Professional Path; Inspirations to Practice Science/Medicine; Patients; Cancer and Disease

Transcript

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

So yes, that was my exposure to research, which sort of was why I was thinking, really, that I wanted to go to graduate school to pursue that further. But in the meantime, between my junior and senior year, usually I had done either summer courses or summer research work, or something like that, the prior two years, but in between my junior and senior year, I really didn’t have anything planned, job-wise. And sometime in the spring of my junior year, two African American students from Baylor College of Medicine showed up on the campus. And there was a flyer on the elevator, I remember, as I was in the science building, that said, “Learn more about summer internships,” or “Summer research projects at Baylor College of Medicine.” So I thought, oh, well, I need a job for the summer, so maybe I should go look into this. (laughs) And it really wasn’t so much that it was just a research project, it was that this was an effort from Baylor to also recruit minority students for medical school. So it was a program that was supposed to prepare students to take their medical—or the medical school entrance exams, the MCATs [Medical College Admission Test]. And there was a curriculum that was associated with it, and they were recruiting students throughout various schools in the State of Texas to come there, now, and so I thought, well, OK, I need a job, so I applied. (laughs) And I got in. Now, I thought it was going to be only for students in the State of Texas. It turned out when I actually did come for the program, there were students from all over the country there.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Oh, wow.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

There were people from Stanford [University], NYU [New York University], as I recall. The only other person from San Antonio was a young lady from St. Mary’s. I was at Our Lady of the Lake, she was attending St. Mary’s. So the two of us had gotten accepted. So in any event, that was my summer experience between the junior and senior year. And we got—we used to have all of these rehearsals for how to study for the test, and I really had not, again, even up to that point, I had not consciously thought I am going to go to medical school. But then they took us around and showed us—these medical students would take us to their clinics, we would be observing alongside them. We even observed a heart surgical procedure.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Wow!

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

At Methodist [Hospital] from the gallery. So it was very exciting. So when I went back, I talked to, again, my chemistry advisor and Dr. Rigual. And I said this was very exciting, what do you think? And Rigual just said, “Are you kidding? I told you, take the MCAT!” You know? (laughter) So, I took the MCAT that fall, my senior year. If you speak to medical students now, they would have thought that is a bizarre, insane trajectory, or way to approach getting into medical school. Nobody does it that lackadaisically, you know?

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Yeah. Yeah.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

If you will. It’s not that I was being lackadaisical in my studies, but I never—it wasn’t—I wasn’t, I think the term probably still is a “gunner.” I wasn’t one of those gunners that are pre-med, and you know, do or die, I have to get into a medical school. That was not the trajectory of my life.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

But the way you were thinking about it completely makes sense, I mean, given your background.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Right.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

I mean, you had real pragmatic, logistical concerns. I need to work. I mean—

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Right.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

I mean, my parents worked, I need to work.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Yes.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

You know, and you were just really lucky that making your practical decisions led you and opened up your life in amazing ways.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Right. Right.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Yeah.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

But even, so even after taking the MCATs, my worry—well, first of all, will I get accepted or not?

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Right.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

And secondly, if I get accepted, how will I pay for it? And again, my choice was made strictly on pragmatic grounds. I got an offer from the University of Texas here in Houston for a full tuition scholarship. And of course, student loans. So that’s where I went.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Yeah.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Because they offered me all of that.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

All the money, yeah. You’re certainly not the only person who’s made those decisions. (laughter)

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Yes.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

So, I mean, this is maybe a bit of a digression, but I’m curious. You know, as you were going through all of these exciting experiences, and you’re seeing kind of a new world from the world you grew up in, you know, how was that—how did you bring that information back to your family? You know, how did that affect kind of how they saw you in your relationship with your parents and with your sister, Olivia?

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Well, again, they were concerned principally because again, I was going to be moving in, and further, as you said, it’s further than San Antonio from Roma. So there was that concern. Secondly, of course, that medical school would take me even further in terms of incurred debt, in terms of education, but also that they realized that it is a very difficult profession. And so their concern all along was, are you sure you want to do this, because life is very difficult for doctors. So really, that was their primary objection, if you will. They didn’t really tell me don’t do that, they just wanted me to be sure that’s what I wanted to do.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

So how did you answer their concerns at the time? Those dinner table conversations? (laughs)

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Well, honestly, I was just taking it one step at a time. The time that I made the application, I said, well, I have just applied. I don’t know if I’m even going to get in. And if I don’t get in, I’m going to come back and teach chemistry probably, or biology, at the high school, you know? That’s what’s going to happen, you know.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Yeah.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

And so I sort of had Plan A, Plan B strategies.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

So you began medical school—I’m just checking the dates here—

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

In 1976.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Nineteen seventy-six, yeah. So tell me about that process.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Well, at the time, the University of Texas medical school here in Houston was unique in that it had a very compressed curriculum in three years. So their four-year curriculum was compressed into three years. And so we literally had absolutely no time off. It was—at the end of those three years, and reflecting back on it years later, is, like, I have no idea what was happening in the world at that time. Honestly, I lived at the library, I lived in—initially, I lived in an apartment building that was across from the medical school. It was called Favrot Hall. It’s been demolished since then. (laughs) But I lived in Favrot Hall. I went to the medical school, and I went to the library, so that was my triangle. You know, medical school, classes, library, Favrot Hall. Favrot Hall, medical school—that was my life throughout my first years. And then when I went into my clinical years, then I moved out of Favrot Hall because it was so confining; the environment was too confining. But in any event, on to clinical rotations. But it was more or less the same thing, you know, apartment, hospitals and of course MD Anderson was one of the hospitals we would rotate through. So hospital rotation, back to the apartment, hospital, back to the apartment. (laughs) That was basically life.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

So how were your interests evolving at that time? Did you get a sense of your specialty? Your coming specialty at the time?

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Well, yes. I mean I think the rotational experiences through the various specialties gives the students a bit of a flavor of what, first of all, of what the physical demands of that particular specialty will be, a bit about the personalities, if you will, and obviously about the tasks themselves. So from the very get-go, I think my first rotation was in pediatrics. While it was really—it’s really lovely to interact with children, I love the Well Baby clinics and all of that, but it was very stressful dealing with the parents. And because it’s a triad relationship, it’s the parent, the child and the doctor, and at the time, that level of my psychological development, I really found that very stressful. So I knew although I loved the children and learning about their childhood illnesses and all of that, I could not handle the parental—the parents were either anxious, angry—or even worse, some of them were indifferent. And any and all of those emotions were a bit too much to handle on top of taking care of the child. So that was out. When I did psychiatry, I actually excelled at psychiatry. But for some reason, it really did not grab me as something I was passionate about. It was interesting, but surgery was physically too demanding, getting up—the medical students were expected to be the first ones on the wards, at least at that time. Things have changed radically since then, in how students are treated. But we had to be there really early in the morning, 5:00 or so, so we had to see all the patients before the residents arrived. We had to report to the residents where the patients—how the patients were doing. Then the residents, of course, in turn reported to the attending. And then you went into the OR and spent the whole day in the OR, then you had to come back and do the rounds all over again. And then you had to close the day, went home, slept, up at 4:00—

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Yeah.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

It was a very, very physically demanding—very exciting, being in the operating room is probably one of the most exciting environments in medicine. But I knew I didn’t have the physical stamina to sustain that for my life, for a lifetime career.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Right. Right.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

And obstetrics and gynecology, similarly very exciting to deliver the babies, but the physical pain that the mothers endured was really too difficult for me to just be comfortable with. It was amazing how the nurses in labor and delivery would just—it was like they had earplugs or something, I mean, really, the screams didn’t bother them very much.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Wow.

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

But it bothered me a great deal.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

Yeah. (laughter) So what was grabbing your interest at the time?

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

Well, so eventually, through my internal medicine rotation, internal medicine is a very intellectual discipline. You have to do a lot of thinking, it’s almost a bit doing detective work, if you will. You gather a lot of information, put the pieces of the puzzle together and make a diagnosis. So that was very interesting to me. So along the course of all these rotations, I knew I had the personality and mental inclination to be an internal medicine specialist, but even within internal medicine, there’s so many sub-disciplines; cardiology, gastroenterology, pulmonology, endocrinology, etc. So the sub-specialty choices come later. But one of the rotations we had as medical students was at MD Anderson, and taking care of cancer patients was challenging, as well as intellectually stimulating, and more importantly, comparing the personalities. I know that it’s difficult to generalize, but in general, cancer patients were so much kinder and appreciative of the care that the medical team, you know, offered them. It was not as traumatic, for example, as dealing with patients in the emergency room, or even dealing—one of the specialties that I found very, very challenging, for example, was pulmonary medicine, where so many of the patients had self-induced illness from smoking. And I’m not judging here, I know it’s really, really hard. But many of them couldn’t help themselves. So how can the doctor help them if they can’t help themselves? In a self-induced situation. Whereas with cancer, although many cancers are linked to environmental factors, including cigarette smoking, but so many of them have absolutely no explanation. I mean, it’s certainly not a choice people—it’s not due to—the majority are not due to a self-determining choice, if you will. So it’s a different, how shall I say, it’s a different relationship that one establishes both with an illness as well as with the individual who’s suffering the illness.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

So were you thinking at that time, even during medical school, that oncology was where you were going to focus?

Alma Rodriguez, MD:

I thought I might, although I still wanted to do primary care.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, PhD:

OK.

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Chapter 03: Going to Medical School

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