“I am what a doctor looks like, and I want the next generation of physicians to know that if I can do it, they can too,” said Nneka Madu, 25.
Madu is one of the students in the Class of 2021 at McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) who learned where they will train as residents through the National Resident Matching Program today. Madu and a friend she met in medical school created a vlog called “The Chocolate Docs,” to encourage minorities to pursue careers in science, technology, education, and math.
Also among the many excited faces of UTHealth today are a woman who underwent 11 brain surgeries while in medical school and is now on a path to treat people with cerebrospinal fluid disorders, just like she has; a 55-year-old veterinarian starting a new career as a physician; and an Army second lieutenant who was born with a congenital heart defect who is now pursuing a career in cardiology.
Traditionally, students gather in Webber Plaza to open the envelopes containing their fate, but this year, students did their own celebrations separately, some receiving their match results via email. While the process may have looked different, the achievement remains a meaningful symbol of hard work, determination, and hope for the future in the midst of one of the greatest challenges to the medical profession – the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of the 234 graduating seniors from McGovern Medical School who participated in the National Resident Matching Program, 128 (55%) will stay in Texas for their first year of postgraduate training and 67 (29%) matched to McGovern Medical School programs. In primary care fields, where there is an acute need of physicians, 155 members (66%) matched. Here are some of the faces of McGovern Medical School’s Class of 2021.
Jamie Wright was born with hydrocephalus, a condition that causes a buildup of fluid in the cavities deep within the brain. Now Wright is looking forward to joining the University of Washington where she will treat patients who have the same disorder.
“I am so excited and thrilled to have matched at the University of Washington; that was my No. 1 choice,” she said.
Wright, age 33, has had 15 hydrocephalus-related surgeries, with 11 of those occurring during the last six years as she completed her MD/PhD at McGovern Medical School and MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth School of Biomedical Sciences. She has never wavered from her goal – working with patients who have cerebrospinal fluid disorders like hydrocephalus.
Wright has led the Houston Hydrocephalus Association Community Network – a support group for patients and families impacted by hydrocephalus – since 2012. Through the program, she has met hundreds of patients and families.
“As a medical student, I learned a lot from parents of children with hydrocephalus. I have had the opportunity to really get to know so many patients and families with this condition. I met some of these patients as newborns and now a lot of them are celebrating their 7th or 8th birthday. It’s been so rewarding to see them grow up,” she said.
In 2014, one of her surgeons, David Sandberg, MD, professor and director of pediatric neurosurgery at McGovern Medical School, invited Wright on a medical mission trip to Haiti.
During the trip, she experienced firsthand how care for children with neurological conditions in underserved parts of the world can be lacking.
“Seeing these kids who have never been treated was really sad. This trip really helped solidify my reason to want to work for better treatment options. It helped open my eyes to my own treatment throughout the years, and I am really grateful and thankful for the care I have received. These kids could be any of us, and by sheer luck I was born in a country where I have great access to care, and it really makes me motivated to do more,” she said.
She credited Sandberg, the Dr. Marnie Rose Professor of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and says she would not be where she is today without his care, and thanked Dianna Milewicz, MD, PhD, the President George Bush Chair in Cardiovascular Medicine at McGovern Medical School, for mentoring her through her MD/PhD journey.
Joe Angel Espinoza Jr.
Joe Angel Espinoza Jr. grew up in a single-parent household in one of the poorest cities in America. His exposure to medicine started at an early age when he acted as a translator for his mother, Isabel Laniez.
“My mom is one of the most important individuals in my life. Going to her doctors’ offices and assisting as a translator meant I was immersed in medicine,” said Espinoza, 26. “These experiences quickly led me to the conclusion that medicine was my passion and future.”
On Friday, he discovered he was matched to McGovern Medical School at UTHealth for a residency in psychiatry, a field that has an extreme shortage of physicians, according to the American Medical Association. His goal is to help children and families struggling with mental health.
Inspired by his own upbringing in Brownsville, Espinoza wants to give back to his community. “Health care in the Valley is like the rest of the country, with a large disparity depending on your income level,” Espinoza said. “Most of the Valley lives close to or below the poverty line.”
His mother and brothers, Carlos and Sergio Laniez, provided him with motivation to pursue medicine. “Carlos is a Navy veteran working as a vice principal and on his way to becoming a superintendent. Sergio is an architect who owns his own firm,” Espinoza said. “They provided me with a preview of the future depending on the path I chose to walk.”
His years at Homer Hanna High School in Brownsville included attending school, then band practice as a trumpet player, and then working the concession stand with his mother before repeating it all again the next day. “I quickly learned how to time-manage, which helped me later in medical school,” he said.
He graduated third in his class and headed for The University of Texas at Austin, where he earned degrees in biology and philosophy. He participated in programs helping children with cleft lip and palates, and participated in undergraduate research.
Initially, Espinoza believed he would become a reconstructive surgeon, but his clerkship at the UTHealth Harris County Psychiatric Center was a turning point. Mentors included Alexandra Duran, MD, and Caesa Nagpal, MD, assistant professors in the Louis A. Faillace, MD, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at McGovern Medical School.
“You hear people’s stories; you spend time getting to know people personally,” Espinoza said. “Working at UTHealth HCPC challenged everything I thought I knew about mental health. I’m thrilled to continue learning from UTHealth faculty and staff on the way to becoming a psychiatrist myself.”
Jessica Green and Nneka Madu
From tips on how you walk into the room for interviews to practical study advice, two McGovern Medical School students who call themselves “The Chocolate Docs” on social media have made an impact on their nearly 10,000 followers and subscribers. Behind the cool name are Jessica Green and Nneka Madu, who became close friends in their first year of medical school. They launched a vlog to help encourage underrepresented minorities to navigate the process of applying for medical school or considering a career in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics.
Green, 26, knew her goal in life was to find a career that would allow her to help others and she felt drawn to medicine during high school in Fort Worth. However, the UT Austin graduate shared that she struggled to find mentors that looked like her.
“Growing up, I didn’t know any Black doctors. There was never someone I could point to that looked like me that was a physician,” she said. She will be the first physician in her family. Fueled by her passion to address the racial and ethnic disparities in pregnancy-related deaths, Green will continue her training through a residency in obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the University of Southern California.
“It’s hard to put in words what this moment means to me. I’ve worked so hard and so long for this moment and I can’t believe it’s here," said Green. “I can’t wait to continue to provide representation to those coming after me and help eliminate the health disparities that disproportionately affect so many women of color.”
Madu, 25, a first-generation Nigerian American, was born and raised in Houston. Though she was always interested in pursuing a career in health care, it was during her undergraduate years at UT San Antonio when she was a medical scribe for an emergency medicine department where she decided a career as a physician was her true calling.
Originally, Madu pictured her path heading toward family medicine. However, when she first shadowed her mentor, Sara Guzman-Reyes, MD, an associate professor of anesthesiology at McGovern Medical School, in the operating room, she realized how much she loved being able to establish trust and reassurance with patients before their surgical procedure.
She matched with her top choice and will be staying in Houston to finish her residency in anesthesiology at McGovern Medical School. “I am so excited to start this next chapter,” Madu said.
Madu said the two were inspired to start their vlog as a way to equip others considering a career in medicine.
“For me, my goal is to always lift others as I rise,” she said.
As their vlog viewership has grown throughout the years, the students said it has been humbling for them to be able to give advice to others who are aspiring to be physicians. In turn, it has further fueled their desire to continue to serve as peer mentors when they both move into a residency program.
“We have pre-med students, high school students, and people from all across the globe messaging us and letting us know we’ve inspired them through our transparency by sharing our wins and struggles throughout our time in medical school, and that really means so much to us,” Green said.
At age 55, most people are looking forward to only a few more years in the work force before they retire. But that’s not the case for Richard Smilie – he says he's just getting started.
Smilie, the oldest graduate in the Class of 2021, and one of the oldest in McGovern Medical School’s history, is ready to venture into a new career.
For the last 32 years, Smilie worked as a veterinarian. Now, he is shifting gears from working with animals to humans, at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB Health) as an anesthesiology resident.
“I am very excited, UTMB Health was my top choice,” he said.
Attending medical school was the next step in Smilie’s career. “For the last 32 years I have been licensed to work on any species in the world except one, humans. Now I get to add humans to my repertoire,” he said.
Throughout his four years at McGovern Medical School, Smilie balanced his studies with working as a veterinarian on the weekends and holidays. He is often asked for veterinary advice by fellow students, residents, and faculty members, and enjoys being the official go-to veterinarian at the medical school.
“I like to joke that you can have numerous people in a room who can do amazing things like heart transplants, but I still get to be the only one in the room with my own specialty – veterinary medicine,” Smilie said.
To Smilie, age is just a number.
“I’ve loved coming back to medical school. I have been especially amazed at the brilliance of my younger classmates. It gives me great hope for the future, and I look forward to working alongside them,” he said.
Annika Medhus and John-Paul Bach
John-Paul Bach, 25, and Annika Medhus, 26, who entered the National Resident Matching Program as a couple, are both headed to The University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School. They said they couldn’t be happier to have matched to the same city and program, with Bach pursuing general surgery and Medhus pursuing neurology.
When Medhus lost her oldest brother to depression when she was in high school, she knew she wanted to pursue a career in mental health. That led her to McGovern Medical School, where she found her neurology to be her niche.
“After my brother’s passing, I became an advocate for mental health,” Medhus said. “I majored in psychology at Texas A&M University and I knew in medical school I wanted to have a career either in psychology or neurology. I landed in the neurology department and it’s been more than I could have imagined. Lots of neurologic disorders have a psychological component, so it ended up being a good combination for me.”
She said she is grateful she had the opportunity to work with Louise McCullough, MD, PhD, professor of neurology and Roy M. and Phyllis Gough Huffington Distinguished Chair, who introduced her to women’s neurology.
“Hormonal differences can be one of the factors that come into play in women who have neurological diseases and I’m fascinated by that part of the field. McCullough and other faculty worked with me to publish a study on the risk of intracerebral hemorrhage associated with pregnancy in women with abnormal blood vessels in the brain,” Medhus said.
In addition to finding her career path and a great mentor during medical school, she also found the love of her life, John-Paul Bach.
Bach has hopes of specializing in either transplant or pediatric surgery after his residency in general surgery. He had the opportunity to work closely with KuoJen Tsao, MD, professor of pediatric surgery and The Children’s Fund, Inc. Distinguished Professor in Pediatric Surgery. The two worked on improving the safety protocol checklist in the pediatric operating wing of one of UTHealth’s teaching hospitals, and studied how to reduce the number of opioid prescriptions for pediatric surgery patients.
“By taking a better inventory of pain scales in patients and reducing the number of prophylactic opioid prescriptions, we were able to cut down on the amount of opioids being prescribed, which is significant during this opioid epidemic,” Bach said.
He said he wouldn’t have gotten through his medical school experience without Medhus.
“There are no words to describe how helpful it has been to have a partner who understands what it takes to give your all to school and medicine and to help navigate through the process of medical school,” Bach said.
Skyler Howell, 25, will continue his journey to become a physician right here at McGovern Medical School with a residency in urology, one of the few specialties that announces its residency pairings before Match Day.
The match is fitting, since Howell is the school’s first John P. and Kathrine G. McGovern Scholarship recipient. The scholarship was part of the transformational gift from the McGovern Foundation in 2015, which helped advance medical training, scientific discovery, and innovation at the medical school.
“I’m so grateful that I was spared the financial hardship so many medical students experience,” Howell said. “Receiving the scholarship helped give me confidence. Being Hispanic and underrepresented in medicine, there can be a sense that you don’t belong in medical school. Couple that with imposter syndrome and it can be difficult. However, the support from my classmates and the school’s prioritization of diversity and inclusion helped me push through.”
Howell was inspired to become a physician in high school when he saw his father, a military veteran, experience major improvement in quality of life following knee replacement surgery.
“My dad lived a very active life. He used to play with us in the backyard all the time, but when his knee wore out, he could hardly move. After the surgery and recovery, he was back to normal and we were so grateful. That experience showed me the importance of medicine beyond acute settings, and how much physicians can help improve people’s lives,” he said.
That desire to change lives is what led him to urology.
“While I initially was unsure of what specialty to pursue, in my third year of medical school, someone told me, ‘If you really want to do quality-of-life stuff, you should check out urology,’ and they were right. Urology is typically thought of as primarily benefitting men with prostate cancer, but it really is a field that helps all ages and genders. For example, urologists also help treat women who have cancer, incontinence, and kidney stones – there are many lifesaving interventions that urologists perform. I hope to be the doctor that everyone knows they can go to with any problem and I will take the time to help them,” he said.
Howell thanked his mentors for showing him how to navigate difficult conversations with patients and serving as admirable role models. His mentors at McGovern Medical School included Steven Canfield, MD, chief of the Division of Urology and C.R. Bard, Inc./Edward J. McGuire, MD, Distinguished Chair; Run Wang, MD, professor of surgery; Nadeem Dhanani, MD, MPH, assistant professor of surgery; and the residents and fellows in the Division of Urology.
It was a late-night job helping her parents and brother clean a pediatric clinic as a child that stoked Maria Hernandez’s passion for medicine and led her to enroll in medical school.
“I would always finish the tasks I was assigned first and would have time to stroll the hallways. I fell in love with the clinical setting and loved looking at the charts on the walls in the different rooms,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez, 26, came to the U.S. in 2000 at age 5 with her brother and parents, who were seeking political asylum from Colombia. When they first arrived, they moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Lake Jackson. She graduated from Brazoswood High School in the top 5% of her class before obtaining a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from UT Austin.
Although her parents had to give up the jobs they held in Colombia – her dad as an engineer and her mom as a university librarian – and seek whatever job they could to make ends meet, both of her parents agreed that it was the best decision they could have made for their family and instilled in their children the value of education.
“It was ingrained in us,” she said.
Hernandez will continue her education at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois specializing in internal medicine.
“I’m humbled to continue my training in a program so incredibly inclusive, welcoming, and one that values hard work and diversity,” Hernandez said.
After completing her residency Hernandez hopes to work with underserved patients.
“I understand the barriers these patients face firsthand so I am passionate about making sure they have access to the best medical care possible,” she said.
Army 2nd Lt. Justin Carranza, 26, is no stranger to cardiovascular medicine. Born and raised in Sinton, near Corpus Christi, he underwent open-heart surgery when he was just 1 day old to correct the narrowing of his pulmonary valve due to a congenital heart defect, pulmonary valve stenosis.
When he was 9, he underwent a second procedure to place an occlusion device to treat an atrial septal defect. During his first year of college at Texas State University, he was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation (an irregular heartbeat) and was monitored for three years until it spontaneously converted back to a normal rhythm.
“My adult cardiologist and electrophysiologist at the time suspected it was associated with structural changes within my heart because of my congenital condition. We are still not sure why I spontaneously converted back into a normal rhythm, but it is not uncommon for AFib patients to spontaneously convert,” he said.
During his time at Texas State, he was co-president of the Texas State Medical Explorers, a student organization that connects pre-health students to community service and mentorship opportunities. Though he always wanted to be a doctor growing up, his personal experiences made him realize he wanted to pursue a career in cardiology. He was a recipient of the Terry Foundation Scholarship and the Joint Admissions Medical Program (JAMP) Scholarship, which he said contributed to his decision to come to McGovern Medical School.
Carranza joined the U.S. Army Reserve during his first semester. He found out early through the Army match program that he will be able to pursue his passion through an internal medicine residency program with Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston Army Military Base in San Antonio. He is the first in his family to serve in the military, and the first to graduate from college.
“I’m very grateful for the opportunity to be able to serve my country through medicine,” he said. “Throughout my life, I have always looked forward to the day where I finished this journey through medical school. My doctors in the past did not just treat me, they mentored me. I’m really happy to have made it this far with their help.”
His wife Katie, a graduate of Cizik School of Nursing at UTHealth, was with him the day he found out they would be going to San Antonio. The two married during his second year of medical school, and he said he is grateful for the support she provided during his medical studies.
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