Select Page

Compassionate Connections: Medical Spanish at the University of Michigan Medical School

Four medical students standing in front of a MIDWEST sign

LMSA Midwest Conference

Growing up in a culturally diverse household, I’ve become intimately familiar with the joys of celebrating various holidays, savoring a wide range of cuisines, and traveling to my parents’ birth countries, which span opposite sides of the globe. I celebrate my diversity as it inspires me to foster linguistic and cultural competence in my future career as a physician. In college, I chose to study Spanish language and culture through my coursework, knowing this perspective would enable me to enrich my soon-to-come medical knowledge.

At the University of Michigan Medical School, I began my first year eager to engage with the Latinx medical community. I learned about the Medical Spanish program at Second Look (SL@M) and knew it would offer me the opportunity to integrate my background to better care for patients. The program, affiliated with the Latin American Native American Medical Association (LANAMA), has helped me find a community that spans all years at UMMS.

M1s, John Morse, Michella Parlett, and Ellie Wright (left to right) presenting their cultural presentation on La Paradoja Latina as part of the intermediate elective.

The Heart of Medical Spanish at UMMS
As the M1 Medical Spanish coordinator, the Intermediate Elective is the most common way students engage with the Medical Spanish program. Guided by Oliver Gatonez from Michigan Medicine Interpreter Services, this elective melds lectures with case-based discussions, history taking, and physical exam maneuvers, all in Spanish. Moreover, programming like cultural presentations and Spanish Standardized Patient experiences profoundly enriches our learning.

Casos Clínicos is another cornerstone of the program. These sessions facilitate discussions of clinical vignettes in Spanish, exploring cultural nuances crucial for treating Latinx patients. Led by Spanish-speaking faculty and residents, they allow for a deeper connection within the overarching Latinx community at Michigan Medicine. Most recently, we had the pleasure of hosting Bryan Figueroa, MD, a UMMS alum, who guided us through various neurosurgical medical cases, focusing on the treatment nuances for Latinx patients undergoing neurosurgery. All the while, we enjoyed homemade empanadas made by our very own Casos Clínicos coordinator, Stephanie Figueroa.

Our newest initiative, Horas Sociales, aims to bolster Spanish language proficiency and foster a sense of community among students at all language levels. Hosted in various informal settings, these gatherings encourage casual conversation and cultural exchange. Since founding Horas Sociales, we’ve nurtured a vibrant community of learners, eager to share and grow together.

I believe Medical Spanish is not only for those with a comprehensive background in the language but also enables everyone to gain cultural insights into a vast yet diverse population. My Cuban heritage from my father’s side is a fundamental aspect of my identity. My Spanish speaking might not be that of a native speaker, but over the years, it has transformed into a tool for connection that I use daily. It’s something I anticipate will only deepen as I start contributing to patient care in my upcoming clinical year.

LANAMA VP Alondra Alvarez and I at the LMSA Midwest Conference

Beyond UMMS: Connecting with the Latino Medical Community
My journey continued as I attended the LMSA Midwest Medical Conference with a group of my closest friends in February 2024. There was nothing better than stopping at one of the many coffee shops in Ann Arbor before we started our road trip to Case Western. This gathering was a vibrant celebration of Latinx culture in medicine, showcasing ongoing research and bringing together medical students, residents, and faculty from across the region. It was here, among peers from various backgrounds, that I grasped the broader impact of our work. The stories shared, the challenges discussed, and the research presented excited me for the everyday efforts to encourage and support Latinx communities both within and outside the medical field.

Natalie Vela, a graduating M4, led an incredible workshop on sustaining and starting Medical Spanish programs at medical schools in our region on behalf of the National Association of Medical Spanish (NAMS). She highlighted our program’s essential mission and the occasional challenges of such programming, including finding qualified long-term instructors and accreditation for the time students devote to this focus of their medical education. I hope to follow in her footsteps, as the outreach of this programming can expand across institutions and benefit a larger group of medical professionals and their patients.

A Call to Future UMMS Students
My journey through the Medical Spanish program at UMMS has been transformative, affirming my belief in the power of language concordance in healthcare. This program stands as a testament to Michigan and its students’ commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, offering a unique blend of clinical education and cultural immersion.

As I continue my medical school journey, I carry with me the lessons learned and the connections made, knowing they will shape my future in medicine. It’s a place where you can grow not just as a physician but as a compassionate and culturally aware human being. My commitment to my values has taught me that differences are made one patient, one conversation at a time.

Rediscovering My Home in DC at the Academic Surgical Congress

It took me two hours to find my DC Metro card. I had gone out of my way to get a special edition cherry blossom one during my gap years there, and I definitely still had money on it. I was excited to go back to a place that feels like a home and walk around with familiarity; the hotel where the conference was held was literally two blocks away from where I used to live.

What I didn’t expect, however, was a flood of memories about my journey to medical school. Now that I was here as a visitor to present at a medical conference, I was passing through my old neighborhood as a medical student. The last time I had walked those streets was when I packed everything into my car and drove to Michigan to start this new adventure.

Here I was, living out my dream and more. It was so refreshing to remember the effort and passion that I poured into getting to this moment, especially in the midst of clinical rotations. Not only was I working towards the career of my dreams, I was also discovering new passions I never knew I had. The DC version of me would never have guessed that I would be interested in surgery and be presenting at a surgical conference.

Then I walked into the conference. I was immediately greeted by hundreds of people, all who looked like they just arrived at their old stomping grounds. People were greeting old friends they haven’t seen in a while, chatting excitedly about not only their research but a whole host of new developments in the medical forefront. I was fascinated by this microcosm but also suddenly intimidated. While I knew that this would be a new learning experience for me, I did not fully comprehend how daunting the barrier of entry would feel until then. With my surgery rotation under my belt, I was hoping to come in feeling at least a bit more prepared.

In the face of my growing imposter syndrome, I was lucky enough to run into some familiar faces. The University of Michigan never disappoints with its representation – I was able to catch up with some M3s who I hadn’t seen since they disappeared for STEP studying and I disappeared into clerkships, chat with a few surgery residents who were excellent education fellows and update them on my growing interest in surgery, and feel supported by faculty, both familiar and new. It was such a relief to feel like I had a community, and it felt especially warm because my community was all in DC.

The conference itself was a fantastic flurry of excitement. I was able to see developments that other medical schools and students were making in surgical research, support some of my friends in their incredible presentations, and spend some time chatting with the DaVinci robot rep to better understand the mechanics and try my hand at it myself. It was wonderful to reaffirm that I loved medicine and that I also loved to work with my hands. Even though my presentation was on the last day, my friends still showed up to cheer me on. I had an incredible time learning about surgery, honing my presentation skills, meeting new people, and growing into my UM community and the overall surgical field.

In hindsight, I realized by chatting with U-M people that I had been living right next to a “University of Michigan” bar in DC during my time here. I remember looking out my window and seeing random gaggles of people wearing Michigan gear and feeling a sense of pride and excitement after I found out I got into the medical school here. It turns out that my U-M community had been in DC all along – I just needed to find myself in it.

Ethics in Action: Insights from a High School Ethics Bowl & Our Path of Excellence

As roommates and members of the Ethics Path of Excellence, dinners at our apartment often lend themselves to discussions of “hot topics” and ethical dilemmas. As curious medical students, we were eager to find a way to volunteer in the community and also share our knowledge as well as learn from others. As we explored avenues to do this, the Michigan High School Ethics Bowl fell onto our laps at the perfect time.

The Michigan High School Ethics Bowl is an annually judged tournament that challenges high school students to think and discuss ethical cases. The Bowl, held at Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, is an opportunity for teams to present case studies to a panel of judges in a series of rounds. The cases are based on real-life situations and the students are tasked with deciding what should be done and be prepared to defend their decision. The winning team is eligible to compete in the National High School Ethics Bowl to represent the state of Michigan.

At the most recent Bowl, held in February, we served as a judge and a moderator for day one of the event. We arrived at Greenhills in the morning before the tournament began and watched the high schoolers nervously prepare for their day. Dressed up to the nines, the students looked focused and determined to argue their ethical dilemmas. We met our fellow judges and moderators with experiences ranging from OBGYN attendings to undergraduate ethic professors to ethical students to art collectors.

In the first case, students debated if simulating acts of torture in games like Legend of Zelda are inappropriate, and whether such actions make the game more violent than intended by its designers. One team argued that this type of “violence” may serve as an outlet for an internal aggression while another team debated that this may enable and inspire future violent acts in adolescents. The teams engaged in an organized debate, had the opportunity to be asked questions by the judges, and were scored based on intelligibility, focus, depth and judgment. After seven rounds of vigorous debate and competition, this year’s Bowl winner was Saline High School! This is Saline High’s first time winning the Hemlock Cup in their 11-year involvement in the tournament. A truly worthy feat!

The Ethics Bowl is just one of the engaging activities provided by the Ethics Path of Excellence. This extracurricular activity offers monthly sessions led by various Michigan faculty who are experts in bioethics. We’ve had the privilege of learning from Dr. Janice Firn, MD, who shared impactful ethics consult cases; Alethia Battles, JD, MSW, who discussed guardianship and the legal aspects of hospital ethics; and Drs. Naomi Laventhal, MD, MA, and Marin Arnolds, MD, who delved into neonatal ethics and the challenges of gestational viability. Beyond these enlightening lectures, Marisa Madrigal, our dedicated facilitator, keeps us informed about community ethics events, speaker sessions featuring bioethicists from around the country and writing opportunities.

I (Sharmi) was honored to present at the 2023 Michigan State Medical Society Bioethics Conference on the ethical implications of socioeconomic health disparities in pediatric post-traumatic brain injury care. This Path of Excellence has provided an incredible platform for connecting with fellow students and faculty from the Center of Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine (CBSSM). It gives us the opportunity to delve into challenging topics in health care and helps us develop the tools to navigate them. As roommates and fellow medical students, we enjoy sharing the Path experience and continuing to learn about ethics inside and outside the hospital together!

Starting Medical School in the Woods: How Creating Adventurous and Mindful Physicians (CAMP) Fosters Student Community at Michigan

Having always dreamt of going to medical school, I long imagined what my first days would look like: meeting my classmates in lecture, exploring the anatomy lab, and receiving my white coat. I never expected to start school in a tent in the woods, carrying my food and clothes on my back. However, through Creating Adventurous and Mindful Physicians (CAMP), I was able to spend my first few days of this new chapter surrounded by nature, bonding with my classmates, and feeling empowered and strong as I stepped out to fulfill my dream of becoming a physician.

Hailing from different colleges, states and past lived experiences, myself and ten other students met at an Ann Arbor park and were shuttled north to begin our adventure. Despite coming in as strangers, we quickly bonded as we divided up gear to carry in our backpacks and took turns reading the map to navigate as we hiked. Some of us were experienced backpackers, and others had never camped before, but regardless of background, we all shared the feeling of being in a new place with new people, excited and nervous to take on the next four years.

Being heavily involved in Outdoor Education in undergrad, I recognize the special place that nature can be in bringing diverse groups of people together. There are few experiences that mimic the genuine joy of jumping into a lake at sunset, or gathering around a campfire to make s’mores. Nature creates an authentic space where you can show up as you are, offering opportunities that are both fun and challenging, but ultimately allowing for team-building, self reflection, and growth in a way that you can only find when you “unplug” from life outside of the woods.

Choosing to start medical school “unplugged” from life back in Ann Arbor offered a chance to jump fully into this new chapter. One of the most meaningful moments on this trip for me was one night after we had finished hiking, sitting around the fire with my new friends. Our M2 and M4 leaders had passed out paper for each of us to write three of our biggest fears about starting medical school and a bowl to place the papers in when we were done. We all sat in silence for a bit as we reflected about what to write, and shyly placed each of our fears into the bowl. Then, our leaders began to anonymously read out each fear we’d written down. I remember being shocked that so many of the things I was nervous about were read four or five times, meaning other people had the same fears. “Everyone will be smarter than me” or “I won’t fit in” suddenly felt a lot less scary when I realized that I was not the only one who felt that way. Sitting under the starry sky in the Michigan wilderness, medical school suddenly felt a lot less intimidating, and I felt a lot less alone going into it.

Starting medical school with CAMP empowered me to feel at home at the University of Michigan Medical School, feel capable and confident in myself as I took this next step, and equipped me with new friendships that still build me up today. As I begin to wrap up my M1 year at Michigan, I now serve as the President of CAMP and am working with my incredible CAMP team to plan the next round of trips for our next class of students. As was my experience with CAMP, our goal is to create a safe environment for students to build confidence, make friends and feel at home at Michigan.

Starting medical school is daunting, but starting medical school with new friends, new memories and a renewed confidence in yourself and your abilities can make the transition as seamless as possible. I am so grateful for the ways CAMP has made me feel welcome at Michigan Med and so excited to help create the same experiences for students who come after me!

Students from my CAMP group celebrating at our White Coat Ceremony!

Growing as a LEADer: From Non-Profit Management to Medical School

Before coming to the University of Michigan Medical School, I spent three years building the nonprofit organization, Lunar Doula Collective (LDC). After noting the lack of reproductive grief care at multiple health care systems, I helped build the first and only pregnancy loss doula program in Michigan. Not only did this experience inspire my motivation to pursue medicine, but it gave me a community that shared my passion for social justice and health equity.

2023 LEAD Cohort at Adventure Leadership in the summer

As I prepared to transition into medical school, I remember feeling anxious about leaving LDC behind. This next chapter of my life would come with a lot of challenges: making new friends, figuring out work-life balance and adjusting to a different environment. While I felt excited and grateful to begin my journey, I was equally as nervous to navigate this process as a first-generation medical student. 

When I heard about the LEAD (Leadership and Enrichment for Academic Diversity) Pre-Matriculation Program, I knew right away that I wanted to apply. This two-week leadership course is thoughtfully designed to prepare and help transition incoming medical students. Through early exposure to resources and mentorship, LEAD students are empowered to cultivate change in the community and seek professional growth. 

All smiles at our White Coat Ceremony – July 23, 2023

During my time in LEAD, I heard from faculty and current students about their experiences at UMMS as they shared advice on how to navigate medical school. From learning effective study strategies to identifying research opportunities, I began growing more confident as the first day of class approached. LEAD programming also included team bonding activities, health equity lessons and stress management strategies. As part of the LEAD cohort, I truly felt like I had the resources, attributes and support system to succeed.

Another thing I appreciate about LEAD is the longitudinal educational enrichment. Our cohort continues to meet throughout the year to hear from various guest speakers and engage in professional development opportunities. Whether it’s a financial literacy seminar or a CV-building workshop, we get to collectively decide what events and topics would interest and benefit us the most. At the end of LEAD, I got paired with a senior medical student as part of a peer-mentoring program. Having someone to lean on and seek guidance from was so immensely helpful when I began medical school. 

Checking out the Big House Stadium with some LEAD friends!

What surprised me the most about LEAD was its unique culture of collaboration and connectedness. I found a safe space to talk about failures, learn from my peers, and explore diverse perspectives. This close-knit community has been my source of encouragement and inspiration throughout my M1 year. I’ve seen my LEAD peers represent our class on the Student Council, encourage community building through M-Home, and facilitate resource and knowledge-sharing. Taking what I learned from LEAD, I was personally inspired to start two new organizations for medical students at UMMS this year: The Ruth Jackson Orthopaedic Society Chapter and Medicine in Motion

LEAD Besties: Krupa Patel (left) and Jennifer Lee (right)

The LEAD Program was the perfect start to my medical school journey. It allowed me to strengthen my leadership and professionalism skills, value the diversity and experiences of my peers, and turn my doubts and fears into self-confidence. These are lessons I will carry with me throughout and beyond the next four years.​ I am grateful to the Office of Admissions, the Office for Health Equity and Inclusion (OHEI), and the Office of Medical Student Education (OMSE) for planning and hosting such an impactful experience. To my 2023 LEAD cohort: thank you for our little community that cheers each other on, dreams big, and makes UMMS feel like home. 

Exploring My Interests in Medical School: From Transplant Surgery Research to Ceramics Classes

Our first week of medical school at the University of Michigan this past summer, I sat in South Lecture Hall with 163 of my new classmates listening to incredible physicians share their philosophies on the practice of medicine. These lectures were inspiring, ranging from how to make the most out of your medical education to how to make the most out of not just your medical career, but your life. One lecture in particular struck me: Chris Sonnenday, MD, a transplant surgeon, talking to us about the small acts of care that make the biggest difference to patients.

I entered medical school recovering from a distal radial ulnar joint injury— not an ideal way to start, but UMMS worked with me to make accommodations and my counselor even helped me find an appointment with a hand surgeon in Ann Arbor!

Dr. Sonnenday is the Surgical Director of Liver Transplantation for Michigan Medicine, and he performs complex hepatobiliary, oncologic and liver transplantation surgery, while also leading numerous research studies. For someone with such intense responsibilities, he is remarkably down to earth. He coaches his kid’s soccer team and runs marathons in his free time. When he started talking about patient care, he emphasized that he just tries to give his patients the honesty and humanity that he would want from his doctor. He described how before each of the surgeries he does, he has made it a practice to hold the hand of his patient while they fall asleep under anesthesia. Oftentimes this is the only thing patients remember when they awake from surgery — that they weren’t alone.

I sat in the lecture hall moved practically to tears and tried to write down takeaways from the lecture I had just heard. This proved difficult, as I was still recovering from donning a cast all summer after dislocating my wrist, and so these notes were even more illegible than my usual bad handwriting. Luckily, I was able to clearly write down Dr. Sonnenday’s email, and I decided to reach out to him that day to let him know how impactful his talk had been to me. To my surprise he responded right away and offered to meet with me to talk about my interests.

Pursuing Professional Interests: AI, Transplant Research and Inspiring Role Models
When we met on Zoom, I shared that I was interested in artificial intelligence for medical use cases — the research I pursued before medical school — and he immediately connected me to the Transplant Research, Education, and Engagement (TREE) team, where I’ve since started on a research project using computational tools to help optimize organ donor-recipient matching. The TREE team is a multidisciplinary group of data scientists, researchers and surgeons who collaborate on research projects in smaller groups and share their learnings with one another and the scientific community through manuscript publishing. TREE meets weekly to go through project updates from the broader transplant group at Michigan Medicine, and my smaller research group working on the donor-matching algorithm meets biweekly.

In addition to research opportunities, faculty like Dr. Sonnenday are very willing to allow students to shadow them and learn from their clinical practice. I was lucky to get to spend a day shadowing Dr. Sonnenday in his Liver Tumor Clinic. I accompanied him to see his clinic patients, all of whom he had formed longitudinal relationships with and spent the full appointment time (and sometimes more) ensuring that he answered all their questions. After each patient visit, he took further time to thoroughly explain the disease etiologies and relevant lab findings to me in detail.

I learned a lot that day, not just about cancer pathology and anatomy, but about what it really looks like to be a good doctor: someone who is unhurried and generous with their time, always making sure to thoroughly teach patients about their conditions, as well as teach trainees about how to care for these patients. Seeing his kindness, honesty and genuine care for each of his patients — whether they were the first patient of the day or the last one at the end of a long day of clinic — was so inspiring and modeled the type of physician I want to be one day. Many of my friends in medical school have had similarly impactful shadowing experiences with Michigan physicians who love teaching med students, starting as early as M1 year.

Introduction to Interprofessional Collaborative Skills: Shadowing a Sex Therapist
Doctors aren’t the only professionals we learn from and shadow as students. An integral part of our first-year curriculum includes the interprofessional collaborative skills introduction (ICS-I), which includes shadowing various health professionals such as nurse practitioners, physical therapists, social workers, doulas, music therapists, dietitians, pharmacists and pathologists. My ICS-I assignments proved to be equally valuable learning experiences as my day shadowing at the Liver Cancer Clinic. I was assigned to shadow a music/pet therapist, a child audiologist and a sex therapist, a social worker who specializes in sexual health counseling.

My first day of shadowing was with Amy Raad, LMSW, CST, a sex therapist at the Center for Vulvar Diseases, and I had no idea what to expect. Little did I know this would turn out to be one of the most interesting days of medical school so far. Amy is an expert in sexual health, women’s health, intimate relationship distress and trauma recovery. She works with patients to help overcome any concerns about sexual health or function after major changes like those brought about through radiation treatment for cancer. She sees an array of patients with varying conditions, from diverse backgrounds and age groups.

Amy made such a big impact on her patients with her openness, depth of knowledge and empathy. She was able to help patients feel comfortable talking about sexual health and function with seeming ease (although I’m sure that’s harder than she made it look!), and it was really inspiring to see her meet patients where they are and create a space where they felt safe to share difficulties rendered by their diagnoses. She was also just insanely cool. Before shadowing in the clinic, I didn’t know anything about this field, but after spending my day with Amy I was so thrilled to be part of a hospital system that offers these resources to patients. I left the clinic that day feeling assured that I had made the right choice in deciding to study medicine at Michigan.

Enjoying a sunset over Lake Michigan during a weekend trip to Grand Haven.

Life Outside Medical School: Ann Arbor, Student Orgs and Quiz-Free Weekends!
When I first began medical school, I was nervous about not being able to keep up with my life outside of school. As a nontraditional student, things like spending time with my family and friends, cultivating artistic outlets and pursuing research had grown paramount to my wellbeing in the years since I’ve graduated college, and I’ve gotten so used to having ample time for them. I was worried that M1 year wouldn’t allow me time for these diverse interests. Luckily, that worry was pretty unfounded — if anything, I feel encouraged to pursue these interests by everyone from the faculty and health professionals I shadow who share the important non-medicine-specific interests in their lives, to my doctoring coach who checks in on my self-care goals first thing every time we meet.

Taking a ceramics class at Ann Arbor Art Center!

Ann Arbor also provides ample opportunity to explore new interests. On a whim I applied for a financial
scholarship to take a ceramics class at the Ann Arbor Art Center, and now I’ve spent one night every week learning how to throw on the wheel and am working on a set of funky (read: lopsided) mugs as Christmas gifts for my roommates. Ceramics classes have been a really fun way to make friends outside of medical school, and they’re just one example of the myriad activities Ann Arbor has to offer for students.

While there’s basically a student group at Michigan Med for just about anything you might be interested in, if you don’t happen to find exactly the group you want, it’s really easy to create your own student group. In fact, this year, three friends and I started the AI in Medicine club to gather students interested in learning about AI developments in the medical field, host talks from faculty working in this field, connect students with research opportunities, and discuss ethical challenges of incorporating ever-advancing AI technology into our healthcare system.

Some med school friends during a camping trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes this fall (feat. Christopher the best dog ever).

Aside from these more organized activities, it’s been really fun just getting to know my amazing classmates. Since we have a non-quiz weekend approximately every two weekends, we take advantage of the free time to do things like go camping at Sleeping Bear Dunes, visit Lake Michigan, and host dinner parties. With all the rich opportunities for personal and professional growth afforded by Michigan Medicine, I’ve had an M1 year that has so far exceeded any and all expectations I had coming in. I can’t wait for what’s to come in my clinical year.