By: Jose Rodriguez, MD
Never in my life would I have dreamed to be this fortunate. Previously, I have blogged about gratitude, about how this amazing unbelievable life I live has put me in contact with heroes—patients who have survived and overcome unspeakable horrors to live among us in Salt Lake City. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve them, as they are the backbone of our beautiful community. What I did not say in that last post was that our clinic, the Redwood Health Center, has a large banner in the entrance that states: “Everyone is Welcome Here” in many different languages.
Today’s post is also motivated by gratitude. About 3 months ago, I was given the opportunity to lead the University of Utah Health Sciences Campus Office of Health Equity and Inclusion. While it is a mouthful, it is important work to which I had long ago dedicated my career. I have led research centers on Underrepresented Minorities in Academic Medicine and have written a myriad of articles on the subject. I do not want to minimize the work of our office at all, but the short version of our responsibilities is this: I serve as the chief diversity officer, charged with climate improvement to ensure that “everyone is welcome” at the health sciences campus—students, staff, faculty, and of course, patients. I had no idea that I would be getting a boot camp over the last 48 hours, thousands of miles away.
I have long been fearful of reunions—high school, college, mission–especially those which remind me of my younger, more awkward (and more selfish) self. I have known about my 20th-year reunion for medical school for the last 10 months, and I had no intention of going for the reasons already listed. I reached out to my friends and classmates, Dr. Pérez (Joey) and Dr. Jiménez (Rosa), and asked if they were going. Joey told me that this reunion was also the 50-year celebration of the Traveler’s Summer Research Fellowship (TSRF)—a Weill Cornell program designed to strengthen minority students’ applications for medical school. I was involved with TSRF during medical school. Joey told me that Dr. Elizabeth Wilson-Anstey and Dr. Bruce Ballard would be in attendance. So, three days before the reunion, I altered my schedule, changed credit card points to miles, and I booked a flight to New York City. I forgot my wallet at home, and by a miracle, I was able to get on the plane.
Joey and I agreed to meet at his apartment and we finally got there at about 12:30 am. We were exhausted, so Rosa, Joey, and I sat in the living room and talked until 5 am. This was a beautiful thing. It was nothing short of a love fest—I confessed to Joey how I was jealous of his study abilities and how grateful I am for his generosity in helping me through medical school. I also told Joey how I remembered that when I met Rosa (she was a student in the TSRF where I was working) I thought that I should introduce them but felt bad for forgetting to do so. Rosa told me that I did introduce them. They have been happily married for more than 20 years and have 3 beautiful children—similar in age and temperament to my own.
Needless to say, because of the late night, we did not get to our 20th reunion until the afternoon break the next day. We spent that entire time with the TRSF 50th-anniversary celebration. There, we met with former teachers, classmates, and deans. The auditorium was packed—every single person there was connected to the TSRF—and virtually everyone was black or brown. Dr. Wilson-Anstey was the mistress of ceremonies. She introduced founders and deans and gave a fantastic presentation on what TSRF has done—including producing 850 underrepresented minority physicians. When Dr. Wilson-Anstey was recognizing graduates, one spoke out. I will never forget her words: “Thank you, thank you, thank you! When I was a young student, you gave me wings!!! You saw in me something that I could not see in myself. I am now the president of the Florida Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology Society, the fourth woman president, and the first Latina! I would not have gotten here without you.” We erupted with applause and after that, tears of joy flowed freely and abundantly.
After excellent discussions on the past and the future of medicine and the TSRF, we attended the reception. Our late start made it difficult to get any food before then, so we ate excessively. After the reception, we met with some medical students to offer words of advice and encouragement. Dr. Ballard also attended; he was the minority affairs dean (the Chief Diversity Officer) during our time at Weill Cornell. He taught the medical students (and the physicians present) about his academic journey and the things he had learned about making an inclusive environment. He spent 25 years as Weill Cornell’s Chief Diversity Officer. The most important lesson that he shared was—you need to love the students with genuine, healthy, platonic, family love. Every effort, it seemed, was designed to make that message clear to all. Systematic changes, true student advocacy, and unbelievable courage was necessary to do this, but Dr. Ballard and Dr. Wilson-Anstey did it. Dr. Wilson-Anstey was our saving grace. While we were students, she was the face and the heart of the office. Dr. Ballard would frequently be seeing patients, but Liz (as we called her then) was ever present. She must not have taken a single day off while school was in session. She heard our complaints, dried our tears, healed our wounds, and sent us out again with renewed self-confidence. I must have lost 20 lbs. in tear weight crying in her office, struggling to overcome what I now know to be a health problem. At the time, I was sure I was just plain stupid. Liz was, and in effect is, the architect and best example of what needs to be done to have students feel that they are a part of an inclusive climate. We eventually did attend our 20th medical school reunion, finishing up at 2 am.
I started this post reminiscing about how I was scared of reunions. But at this reunion, I was delighted with how welcomed I felt and touched by seeing how we had become a family. We are all older and grayer now (except for Dr. Jiménez and Dr. Wilson-Anstey—who have discovered the fountain of youth and drink from it regularly) but are still going strong. I had not seen Dr. Wilson-Anstey or Dr. Ballard for over 20 years, and our reunion was as if we had been in contact all along.
So, yes, I am grateful. And yes, here at the University of Utah we have made spaces where “Everyone is Welcome.” It is my wish, and our office’s goal, to make our Health Sciences Campus produce in our students, faculty, staff, and patients, the overwhelming joy and gratitude that I feel now. We, at the U, are a highly functional, unconditionally loving family. Please join us as we make this clear to everyone and make the systematic changes that prove that we value each individual for who they are, and not only for what they do for us. We are so close…
Jose Rodriguez, MD, serves as the current Interim Associate Vice President for the Office of Health Equity and Inclusion. He also serves as a Professor in the Division of Family and Preventive Medicine and sees patients at the Redwood Health Clinic.