As a child growing up in Los Angeles, Rosa Hernandez sometimes entertained the dream of becoming a doctor. She says her knack for relating to others in “lay terms” while simultaneously thinking in scientific ones, ended up being a perfect fit for her journey into the medical profession.
A first-year student at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, Hernandez’s love of learning and helping others was forged from the example of her parents, who emigrated from Mexico. Their hard work and entrepreneurial spirit led to opening a small shoe-vendor business at an LA-area swap meet and creating a family tradition of embracing higher education.
“They always emphasized education,” says Hernandez, who embraced her parents’ passion for knowledge and emerged as a first-generation college student, following her older brothers Daniel and Richard to do her undergraduate education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
During Hernandez’s studies at MIT — where she earned a degree in brain and cognitive science — her interest in the brain’s resiliency and fragility led her to explore neuroscience beyond the classroom and inside the lab.
Hernandez joined a research team to study casual learning development in toddlers. She examined and compared social and physical causes and their effects on early childhood learning. While Hernandez’s work in the laboratory tapped into her proficiency in science, she says the experience helped her realize that her academic interest would best serve others in a more direct way.
“I couldn’t see myself doing research with results that take years to reach the public. I wanted to harness my love for science and combine it with something that really matters and that is more immediate, and to put it to use to help others,” she says.
In 2011, from a patient’s bedside at Clínica Guadalupana in Colima, Mexico, she spent the summer shadowing surgeons. It was there that Hernandez saw her future as a doctor, where she could celebrate her passion for science and bring compassionate care to others.
At Clínica Guadalupana, Hernandez met a patient before her surgery. Their relationship began with a conversation and a discovery of some common ground between two women. It ended that same day, after the patient’s surgery.
“After we talked about our families and histories, I asked her if she minded if I observed her surgery,” Hernandez said. “She asked me if she would ever see me again, and I told her it was unlikely. That conversation really stuck with me and showed me the transient nature of doctor-patient relationships. In a short time of interacting, you develop such a deep relationship. Patients entrust you with their secrets, with their bodies, with their lives.
“Being a doctor is not just about having sufficient medical expertise. Of course, it’s vital to have knowledge of treatments and drugs, but it’s also about people coming to you with their deepest secrets and in their scariest moments, and being compassionate in that moment.”
Hernandez says her experience working at Clínica Guadalupana not only gave her a deeper appreciation for patient-physician relationships, but also revealed a bold disparity in medical care.
“In Mexico, necessities are bare. Iodine solutions are stored in old Gatorade bottles. They make the best of what they have. It’s no comparison to the availability of resources at a top-notch hospital like Massachusetts General,” says Hernandez, who, as an undergraduate student, also shadowed surgeons at MGH.
Likewise, Hernandez says her first year at Geisel has opened her eyes to the health and economic challenges local residents face. During her recent service project through the organization Listen, Hernandez met with residents of nearby White River Junction, Vermont, who said they forego their health care to heat their homes.
“People don’t have money to pay their gas bills and they are still working to pay bills from the year before. Learning about their struggles and how very different they are than those of residents of Los Angeles, where heating a home is rarely necessary, gave me an appreciation of the [hardships] those in the local community face,” she says.
At Geisel, which not only sheds light on those challenges, but also works for their solutions, Hernandez says her path to becoming a physician is clearly marked.
“I took a strong interest in Dartmouth, where everyone is so over-the-top and genuinely kind,” she says. “It’s such a great environment conducive to learning … and to making a difference in other people’s lives.”