Rare Mettle

Dec 9, 2014, 9:00 AM

For the 25th anniversary of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP), the Human Capital Blog is publishing scholar profiles, some reprinted from the program’s website. SMDEP is a six-week academic enrichment program that has created a pathway for more than 22,000 participants, opening the doors to life-changing opportunities. Following is a profile of Rachel Torrez, MD, a member of the Class of 1990.

The year was 1992. Rachel Torrez, a second-year medical student, was in line waiting for coffee at the University of Washington when a White male student confronted her.

“You took my best friend’s spot because of quotas,” he sneered.

The granddaughter of Mexican migrant workers, Torrez enrolled at a time when students of color were few and some people—especially in Washington state—were questioning the fairness of affirmative action. Clarence Thomas, an outspoken opponent of affirmation action, had recently joined the Supreme Court.

“We don’t have quotas,” Torrez shot back. “I took your best friend’s spot because I was smarter.”

That mix of brains and backbone is characteristic of Torrez, who conquered severe dyslexia and cultural constraints on her way to an MD. Now a family-practice physician in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, Torrez gives as good as she gets.

Through the Minority Medical Education Program (MMEP, now SMDEP) and its Washington site‘s then-director, Charlie Garcia, MPH, she found her way in medicine. Through her community involvement and as an SMDEP instructor herself, she helps underserved patients and students find theirs.

“We have to educate people that this is something you can actually touch and reach for,” says Torrez. “It can be tangible if you can learn to ignore the circumstances you live in.”

To Be a Professional

The coffee-line episode was not uncommon in the early ’90s, says Garcia, a Latino whose family moved from a poor community to a middle-class neighborhood where they were in the minority. He learned, he says, how to live in two worlds.

When Torrez related the incident to him, Garcia advised her to walk away. “Do not let them take you down,” he told her. “They want you to fail, and you’re falling into their hands if you do it.”

Torrez recalls that he counseled her and the other minority students to be forbearing in situations where they were challenged for being what she describes as “the wrong color” in medical school.

This is something you can actually touch and reach for. It can be tangible if you can learn to ignore the circumstances you live in.

Garcia says, “We talked a lot in the program about demeanor and what it means to be a professional, and how to deal with some of the feedback you might get for being part of a group of students who are not normally seen at the medical school.”

It was a lesson that took some time for Torrez to absorb.

“[Garcia] sat across from me in every committee we served on,” she says. “I would get so frustrated with them. I would want to raise my hand and voice my frustration about how stupid they were in regards to minority affairs and what’s going on in real life, and he would just shake his head, ‘No, not yet, no, no.’”

As her mentor, Garcia taught Torrez how to handle aggravating situations, and to know when and how to make her point. One day in a committee meeting, rather than sitting across from her as usual, he sat next to her. When she wondered why, she says, he replied, “I don’t need to do that anymore. You have been the ideal pupil. You don’t lose your temper anymore. You wait when you’re supposed to.”

“You nurture them to a point where they can detach themselves from their personal feelings and share their professional observations,” explains Garcia.

“Torrezes Aren’t Doctors”

Of her grandparents’ 23 grandchildren, Torrez was the only one to attend college—a decision that met with some resistance from her extended family. “When I said I was going to go to college, all my uncles said, ‘Why? Go get a job, earn money.’”

Her mother was more encouraging, perhaps because she had wanted to go to college herself, says Torrez. “She pushed the hell out of me. She did not accept anything but A’s in high school. I’m very dyslexic so it’s hard. I had to work hard to get my A’s.” Her mother agreed to help her with college if she graduated from high school with honors—and she did.

Although Torrez’s dyslexia made college—and especially the lab work—difficult, she kept at it, graduating from San Jose State University with a degree in biochemistry. But before she did, an aunt who was a nurse suggested that she consider a minority education program at UCLA for students interested in becoming doctors.

It was surreal to me to think that I could want to be a doctor, and the University of Washington could be somewhere where I could thrive.

She balked at first, answering, “Torrezes aren’t doctors.” In retrospect, she says she had no precedent to guide her. “In our family, becoming a doctor was unheard of.”

Finding Refuge

At the UCLA summer program in 1989, Torrez saw her first doctors of color—a Black man and woman. She began to consider medicine because she loved science and was good with people. When she graduated from college, her aunt, the nurse, told her about MMEP.

Garcia had put together the program at Washington in 1989 but was scrambling to find enough students to fill it. Knowing that smaller colleges enrolled students who would benefit greatly from the program, he went there to recruit. Soon after he stepped onto the San Jose campus, he heard the name Rachel Torrez.

“Her notoriety was not in the traditional sense of, ‘Oh, this is my best organic chemistry student,’” he recalls. “People said, ‘This student is really special. This student has a real gift of communicating and drawing people in and listening.’”

Torrez was accepted into the 1990 MMEP cohort, and her summer at the University of Washington solidified her desire to become a doctor. At MMEP, she found a mentor and a refuge, a place where she felt safe.

“I grew in the sense that this was where I was meant to be. Just the idea that I could do it...it was surreal to me to think that I could want to be a doctor, and the University of Washington could be somewhere where I could thrive.”

Interspersed with the counseling, classes, and shadowing offered by the program, she also had some fun: picking raspberries on a migrant farm, doing for pleasure what her grandfather—the oldest of 18 children—had to do decades ago to feed his family.

Perseverance and Determination

Torrez started medical school in 1991 at Washington with the help of Garcia, who was on the admissions committee. She says she was accepted largely on her GPA and not her less-than-stellar MCAT score. Garcia recalls that he had to persuade the admissions committee to give her a chance, noting that a doctor with dyslexia would bring an added dimension to the profession.

“Charlie Garcia saw potential in me,” she says, “bringing me under his wings, teaching me how to behave myself in meetings, in committees, in speaking to people about the program. It was a great learning experience.”

“Rachel taught me perseverance, determination,” says Garcia—not that she didn’t have setbacks. “We had long talks in the office,” he says. He told her, “You can do this. Don’t be down on yourself because it isn’t coming as easy as it is to others, don’t be down on your commitment to this. Hang in there, and I’ll keep the door open for you as long as you’re walking toward it.”

He adds, “She took a little longer than most students do”—it took Torrez seven years instead of the usual four to graduate—“but, my goodness, what we got at the end is a committed family doc who has a practice that serves a nice mix of people in Seattle.”

Her grandfather, the migrant worker who never went to college, was there when she graduated from medical school.

Community Service

Now practicing family medicine in the city, Torrez serves the community in ways that extend beyond her office door. When a patient loses a job, she says, she treats him or her for free. When the son of a longtime patient died, she paid for the funeral. She teaches at SMDEP, and provides shadowing experiences for students each July.

During her residency, she taught at a high school where she saw students who were weighed down by their home life. “These were kids who could have been positively influenced by programs like MMEP if they were offered early on,” she says—before the students, especially the boys, dropped out or became disillusioned.

“It’s about mentoring,” she concludes. “Charlie Garcia gave me a shot. Now it’s my turn to give someone else a shot.”

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.