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Finding Spanish Opportunities in Medical School

When you receive an interview from the University of Michigan Medical School, they ask you to share something unique about yourself that you can do. While some responses are funny, like being able to eat a 3-lb. cinnamon roll or talk like Stitch from “Lilo and Stitch.” Others are more serious:

“Can run an ultramarathon.”

“Can read Arabic and Hebrew script.” 

“Can build and race cars.”

I can honestly say everyone in my class has a passion outside of medicine, a skill they are trying to enhance, or a hobby they love. Whatever this may be for you, I think a natural concern for applicants is, “Can I continue this while in medical school?”

2016, living in Nicaragua. My host-mom and host-sister are two of the most loving people and the best teachers. My friend who recently graduated from UMMS did a global health rotation in Nicaragua, and I hope to do the same.

After graduating from college three years ago, I set out to learn Spanish. This involved living in a Spanish-speaking country, traveling and getting involved with organizations locally. One of my main goals when starting medical school was to not only maintain the progress I had gained, but also improve.

I have found the opportunities to learn, practice and apply a second (or third, or fourth) language are everywhere if you search for them. Since starting medical school four months ago, I have been able to translate at a free clinic for migrant workers, where medical student Spanish-speakers are paired with non-Spanish speaking clinicians. I have worked with Washtenaw Health Initiative to help Spanish-speaking community members enroll in health care coverage. I have also helped orient Spanish-speaking patients at the U-M Student-Run Free Clinic in Livingston County.

These experiences have been some of my favorite experiences thus far in medical school; however, my most educational Spanish language experience has been the student-run medical Spanish elective. This is a class where a small group of medical students meet in the evenings two or three times a month with a Michigan Medicine physician who is either a fluent or native Spanish speaker. The session is entirely in Spanish and usually begins with the physician pretending to be a patient as the students walk through an entire visit, starting with taking a complete history. We then discuss the case in-depth, and possible diagnoses and treatments.

November, 2018. Volunteering for Washtenaw Health Initiative to get the word out about open enrollment for health insurance and connect people to resources.

During a year where our academic material focuses on the details of organ systems, drug mechanisms and anatomy, this course, refreshingly, has an entirely clinical focus. We not only learn Spanish medical vocabulary and phrases, but as a group we walk through creating a differential diagnosis and learn more about how doctors think. It has also been a wonderful opportunity for students among different classes to spend time together.

Whether you are interested in improving on a second language, taking piano lessons (seriously, these are offered to medical students), or perfecting your Disney character impersonations (consider auditioning for The Smoker), just because you are in medical school does not mean you need to put these goals away for four years. In fact, I’m learning it’s better if you don’t.

A Month of Wilderness Medicine

From the moment I started medical school at Michigan, I had been looking forward to September of my M4 year, and not for the reason that might come to mind first – residency applications – but for the Wilderness Medicine elective. Spending a month mostly outdoors learning how to care for injured hikers, climbers and kayakers as well as a week backpacking at Isle Royale National Park seemed too good to be true. Then I heard about the caving. I had found the catch. I’m rather claustrophobic and there was no fiber of my being that wanted to go into a cave. The allure of backpacking on Isle Royale, however, won out and that’s how I found myself in a cave outside of Bloomington, Indiana.

One of the stunning views from our trip Isle Royale National Park that never grew old. Photo credit – Owen Brown, M4.

The caving trip was the last in a series of adventures of the Wilderness Medicine rotation. The first adventure was a drive to Copper Harbor, Michigan, population 108, on the tip of the Keweenaw peninsula followed by a 3.5-hour ferry to Isle Royale National Park, the least visited National Park. On Isle Royale we backpacked for five days along rugged, rocky coastline and across the central ridge of the island. In the evenings, after a dip in the frigidly refreshing Lake Superior, we had peer teaching on different wilderness medicine and survival concepts including foraging, emergency shelters and animal trapping. Upon our return to Ann Arbor, we kayaked and practiced drowning rescues, went rock climbing, and participated in the Midwest MedWar – a trail race with medical obstacles and orienteering. Suddenly three weeks had passed, which meant it was time for our our last adventure – caving.

We arrived at Buckner cave, outside of Bloomington, in the heart of cave country midday on the last Monday of the rotation. Once we got geared up and packed – helmet, headlamp, backup flashlight, backup candle, knee pads, snack – we entered the cave led by several members of the National Cave Rescue Commission. We spent five hours exploring the cave starting with about a ten-foot army crawl followed by hands and knees crawling that gradually progressed to crouching and then to standing. Our path – the Circle Route – consisted of narrow passages that opened into rooms where our group of just under 20 could sit comfortably and learn about various medical scenarios that occur in caves from strains and sprains to pelvic fractures to heart attacks to hypothermia – many similar injuries and medical conditions one would expect to see in the hospital just with fewer resources and tighter quarters. My favorite session was practicing with the Palmer furnace – a surprisingly effective hypothermia prevention technique that involves a candle and a garbage bag. Within minutes, I was nice and toasty in the 55 degree cave.

After a night tent camping in the field next to the cave, we spent an hour learning about how to actually extract an injured or sick caver using two different types of litters. Then we tested our knowledge by actually coordinating a mock rescue ourselves. Surprisingly the rescue was less about medical knowledge and more about communication, teamwork, problem solving and preventing hypothermia. After several hours, our group of 16 successfully got our “patient” out of the cave! Much to my surprise, I actually really enjoyed the cave rescue scenario. By focusing on the problem and what needed to happen to get the team out of the cave, I forgot about my claustrophobia.

Cave rescue in action. Photo Credit: Phil Azouz, M4.

The Face of a Nation.

The first step in addressing health disparities in minority communities is acknowledging they exist, but we can only expect to see significant progress when the physician workforce demographics matches that of the population it serves. We have to increase minority presence in healthcare, but how?


“I’m no art buff, wine connoisseur, or genius; just fortunate, tenacious and a bit lucky.”

There are many barriers that block minority students from pursuing careers in health related fields spurring from lack of resources to the total absence of knowledge on the process of becoming a physician, but in my opinion, two of the biggest minority deterrents are the lack of representation and the social expectations of how a physician should look and act.

To unpack that last statement, many individuals of minority status are intimidated by the expectations that are synonymous with increased socioeconomic mobility of physicians; like the understanding of “highbrow” culture, politics, fine art, exotic cuisine—all of which usually require a certain level of status to interact with. In short, social constructs convince them that they aren’t polished enough for such a career.

I’m no art buff, wine connoisseur, or genius; just fortunate, tenacious and a bit lucky. To present myself as an example that any minority that “tries hard” can become a doctor is deceptive, and undermines the complexity of representation in medicine. And for that very reason I try to use social media to portray the many dynamic attributes that can comprise a future physician. Whether that means taking over the Umich Snapchat account on the behalf of the medical school, or rapping the lyrics to my favorite Curren$y song on Twitter. I want onlookers to realize that choosing a career in medicine shouldn’t depend on where you come from, your dialect, style of dress or customs—but whether or not you are committed and willing to serve mankind to the best of your ability.

So how am I hoping to influence the demographics of medicine? Using my social platform as a method of recruitment, all while challenging the status quo and revealing the new physician.