The road to a new scholarship started at a horse racing track.
Two first-year medical students at McGovern Medical School, John "JT" Thomas, MD '88, and Azreena "Reena" Thomas, MD '88, met in 1984 during a trip to Delta Downs Race Track in Louisiana as part of a social fraternity at the school.
Both low on cash, they combined their money for a bet.
“It was a photo finish, and we lost,” Reena says. “That’s when we found out we were exponentially bad at gambling together.”
While the horses may not have run their way, JT and Reena still came out winners, marrying four years later just before graduation. After more than 30 years and two children—daughters Jenna and Alyssa—they look back on their time at McGovern Medical School as the most formative in their lives.
Reena also completed her neurology residency and fellowship at the school through the Texas Comprehensive Epilepsy Program. When she started her second year of fellowship at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, she found that her time at McGovern Medical School had prepared her well for the task.
“I would come back and tell my professors how grateful I was for their training,” she says. “They were touched. A lot of them teared up.”
Reena continued her passion for treating patients with epilepsy by returning to serve on faculty at McGovern Medical School for five years before going into private practice. JT entered the field of interventional radiology, where he served on faculty first at Baylor College of Medicine and then The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center before entering into private practice.
“Being a physician is so completely key to who I am, and the medical school gave me the opportunity for that,” JT says. “I think both of us can look back and say that it allowed us to pursue our dreams.”
While Reena’s parents were able to pay for her medical education, JT needed multiple student loans to finance his dream of becoming a physician.
“We were in our 40s before we paid off those loans,” Reena says.
They have seen how medical students today routinely take on significantly more debt than they did, a burden that could not only delay key life goals like buying a house and having children, but also pressure students into choosing more lucrative specialties.
In concert with the UTHealth Houston Many Faces. One Mission. campaign and its focus on training the next generation of health professionals, they endowed The JT and Reena Thomas (Class of 1988) Medical Student Scholarship at McGovern Medical School in 2019. The fund has provided financial aid to a student each year since 2020.
“It’s not a full ride scholarship, but it will allow students to take on a little less debt,” JT says. “Out of all the medical schools in Texas, McGovern isn’t as high up as some others in terms of scholarship money offered. We’re happy to do our part to improve that.”
As alumni representatives for the Class of 1988, they stay connected with the school and have played key roles in planning major events such as the class’s 30-year reunion. Their oldest daughter, Jenna, has followed in their footsteps, beginning her second year at McGovern Medical School in the fall of 2022.
“We’re over the moon about it because the school holds such a special place in our hearts,” Reena says. They hope to see more scholarships endowed so that students like Jenna can attend McGovern Medical School without the burden of debt, because they know how valuable the education they received has proven in their lives and careers.
“It’s all about taking care of patients,” Reena says. “They taught us to treat everyone like we’d treat our mother, and that really does make all the difference. It’s important that new generations of doctors learn these values, too.”