Grandparents’ Struggles Inspire Future Physician
Jul 10, 2024
Liz Madison
Young Latina girl poses for a photo with her grandparents with fall foliage in the background

If you were to paint a portrait of Anaissa Medina, it wouldn’t be a complete picture without William and Juanita Huerta, Medina’s maternal grandparents. Their constant presence has had a tremendous impact and influence over her life, most notably in her pursuit to become a doctor.

Medina saw the lasting effects of inadequate healthcare access for her grandparents. Using that as motivation and inspiration, she has started medical school this July at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, an institution founded in the 1960s to help create more access to healthcare services within the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Medina will do so with a full-tuition scholarship, academic support and experiential learning opportunities thanks to investments from Sutter Health, a not-for-profit, integrated health system based in California.

“Thanks to the support of my family I felt my dream of attending medical school could be a reality with hard work, but I never imagined doing so on a full tuition scholarship. Never in my wildest dreams,” the 26-year-old said.

Those dreams started in Salida, nestled in almond orchards of California’s Central Valley, less than 10 miles northwest of Modesto. Medina lived there with her parents, Ernesto and Lorena. They graduated high school and attended some community college classes, but chose to enter the job market. While Medina’s parents focused on work, the Huertas spent their days helping raise their granddaughter.

Latino family poses together for photo in backyard patio

Anaissa Medina, second from left, poses with her father, Ernesto, far left, mother, Lorena, right, and her brother, far right.

Medina says both her parents and grandparents were strong advocates for her education. While her grandmother only spoke Spanish and attended school up to the fifth grade, she offered reassurance in other ways … a warm meal, a hug or encouraging words.

Medina’s grandparents also liked to stretch her imagination, sparking curiosity and creativity in unexpected ways. The Huertas had some trouble making ends meet. One of the ways they earned money was by purchasing items and fixing them up for resale. She would often accompany them to recycling centers or garage sales, where the three of them transformed the visits into “treasure hunts.” She delighted in the idea she was helping her grandparents as they searched for “rare finds” together.

“It was not perfect, but I got the support I needed,” she said, “and now I am in the position I am in to pursue medicine, which is so cool.”

But other lessons involving Medina’s grandparents were much starker. She often joined them during doctor and hospital visits. Even at a young age, she would translate from English to Spanish between her grandparents and the medical professionals. Her grandfather had many health complications, including diabetes, kidney and heart issues, and the terminology was often complex. Even though her grandfather was bilingual, Medina did her best to bridge between both languages, both worlds. However, her frustration only grew knowing her grandparents deserved better.

Latina woman in white graduation cap and gown poses with grandparents for photo in front of staircase

Anaissa Medina poses with her grandparents at graduation.

Medina recalls another time when her grandmother had her blood pressure screened at a health clinic put on by a neighborhood church. It was so high, the device simply maxed out. Clinic staff members urged Medina’s grandmother to go to the emergency room, but her lack of insurance stopped her. Fortunately, the family learned of a free community resource — St. Luke’s Family Practice in Modesto — where Medina’s grandmother could receive more consistent primary care. But that wasn’t easy either. The clinic was first come, first serve, opening at 8 a.m. That meant the family got up at 6 a.m. to travel to the center, camping out in front with blankets to keep them warm until the doors opened.

Medina remembers her grandmother being very tense at the first clinic visit. But as soon as the staff and providers greeted the family in Spanish, Medina sensed a shift in her grandmother. She remembers her grandmother’s eyes filling with tears, her exhaling a huge sigh of relief. That was a turning point for her grandmother’s health, providing her no-cost and low-cost tests and prescriptions she needed to maintain healthier blood pressure rates.

“I was only 8 and I knew I wanted to do this for my community in my future,” Medina said.

A group of medical professional pose for a photo in front of health clinic

Anaissa Medina, middle, poses with colleagues from St. Luke’s

Over the years, Medina said her choice to pursue medicine was reaffirmed through supportive mentors, fascinating research programs and job opportunities.  It came full circle when she returned to St. Luke’s Family Practice, first as a volunteer and then as a part-time medical assistant. While attending college at California State University, Stanislaus, she volunteered at a local emergency department. During one of her shifts, she entered a room where she met an older Latino couple. The woman was in the hospital bed and the man was seated in a nearby chair gripping rosary beads.

“I could tell they were scared. I introduced myself in English. I then repeated myself in Spanish. And their eyes welled up with tears. I couldn’t help but see my grandparents,” she said.

Medina chose Charles R. Drew University because of its commitment to serving people like her grandparents. She says being part of a university that is so vested in changing the lives of those like her and her family felt right. In Medina’s estimation, CDU walks that talk by immersing itself in the community, offering support and resources like its street medicine programs and others.

“CDU supports my mission, and I am helping fulfill their mission and vision, too,” she said.

Handwritten note from child pretending she was a doctor

Anaissa Medina signed her first “doctor’s note” as a child.

 

 

 

 

 

Medina says family medicine is the most attractive field to her right now and where she sees herself impacting her community the most. She acknowledges there are physician shortages, particularly in the Central Valley, and would like to return there as a Spanish-speaking physician.

It sounds like the dreams Medina had all those years ago are starting to come to fruition. Her family recently uncovered a paper from her childhood where she signed her name with “Dr.”

 

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