This interview is the latest in an Accepted blog series featuring interviews with medical school applicants and students, offering readers a behind-the-scenes look at top medical schools and the med school application process. And now, introducing Claudia…
Accepted: We’d like to get to know you! Where are you from? Where and what did you study as an undergrad? When did you graduate?
Claudia: I’m originally from Brawley, a small town in Southern California, but I was mostly raised in Houston. Houston is home to the world’s largest medical center, which is why I chose to attend the University of Houston. I graduated in 2013 with a major in Biology and minor in Chemistry.
Accepted: Where are you currently attending medical school? What year are you?
Claudia: I’m currently attending McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in the Texas Medical Center in Houston. I’m a rising 3rd year medical student.
Accepted: You have a truly inspirational story! Can you share about your journey and life up until this point for our readers?
Claudia: I was the first person in my family to graduate from college and I’m the first in my family to attend medical school. I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was 7 yrs old. My family is from a small town in Southern California. Brawley is an agricultural town that grows many fruits and vegetables all year round (my family has worked picking produce for years). I’ve seen the difficulty they’ve gone through to access healthcare and made a vow to show my town that an education is possible, a life besides drugs and alcohol is possible, and a dream outside of Brawley is possible. Since then I’ve worked amid so much adversity to see this dream through. When I entered college I had the next four years of my life planned out on a piece of paper. This, I thought was the way I’d succeed in order to ultimately get into medical school. What I didn’t realize is that the next four years of my life went exactly as planned, but not like the plan at all.
I was diagnosed with Chiari Malformation and Syringomyelia during college. At the time I had no idea my life would change forever. Since then I’ve lived in and out of the hospital, sometimes months at a time. I’ve undergone six brain surgeries, four feeding tube surgeries, five shunt surgeries, multiple procedures, diagnostic tests, and have been diagnosed with Hydrocephalus, Trigeminal Neuralgia, Adrenal Insufficiency and Tethered Brainstem along the way.
In February 2017, I went in for my sixth brain surgery and woke up unable to function from the neck down. We knew it was going to be a risky surgery as there are only three or four other cases reported in the literature of a tethered brainstem. It was determined I suffered a stroke to my brainstem during surgery; because of this I had to spend months in the hospital re-learning how to do absolutely everything in everyday life. My mom was my arms and legs, feeding me, bathing me, dressing me, changing my diapers because I couldn’t do anything for myself, not even hold a kleenex. I had to be strapped to the hospital bed because I couldn’t even sit up on my own. From learning to bathe, dress, feed myself again, to becoming a left handed person and learning to write, type and turn a page in a book, to learning how to walk again, every single thing we do in everyday life that most of us take for granted, I had to re-learn how to do all while trying to still continue school.
So through college and now through medical school I’ve battled these illnesses. There were days when I’d study just by listening to recordings of lectures because I couldn’t see, days when I used audio command to operate my computer because I couldn’t lift my hands, days when I studied lying down because I was too weak to sit up from the dehydration the vomiting caused when the intracranial pressure in my brain was high, days when I had to have someone push me in my wheelchair to be able to go to school, days when I had to attend dinner meetings and just look at other people eat at the table while my feeding tube was hooked up to my body because I couldn’t swallow anything by mouth. But, in my eyes, these were the good days since I was still able to do something! Some days I didn’t even know of my existence.
Life isn’t so much about what happens to you, but how you respond. Despite all my setbacks I’ve managed to publish research as first author in a major Neurosurgery Journal, I’ve honored obtaining nearly perfect grades in nearly every course in our curriculum and I’ve raised over $55,000 for Chiari research by founding a Conquer Chiari 5k Walk in Houston uniting over 400 people affected with Chiari.
Accepted: After reading the above, I’m sure people are wondering how you do it? So, how have you be able to accomplish SO much despite the adversity you’ve faced?
Claudia: How did I do it? I never lost hope. I just took it one day at a time, sometimes one hour at a time or even one minute at a time. Where some people found darkness, I found light. I saw it as a learning experience for me to be able to be a better doctor for my patients and their families. There were plenty of doctors who told me I needed to quit medical school. I will never forget one who told me, while I was lying in a hospital bed, “Lift your leg up.” At that time I couldn’t move my legs and then she told me, “That is why you need to quit medical school. Look at your state of health. You can’t even do for you how can you do for others.” That day I could have listened to her, but instead I chose to follow my heart. I knew this dream wasn’t instilled in me for nothing and I was going to see it through no matter how difficult. So surrounded with a loving family, a great team of doctors, and two very understanding schools, we have all worked together. But the real hero in all this has been my Mother. She has never left my side. She has given up part of her life in order to give me a chance to keep mine. No words will ever express the gratitude I have for her.
Accepted: Did anyone along your medical school application journey ever tell you that you should rethink medical school? What do you have to say to those people who doubted you?
Claudia: YES! Several people told me I couldn’t become a doctor for various reasons: I was Hispanic, no one in my family had ever gone to college, I wouldn’t be able to afford it etc. It wasn’t because I wasn’t smart enough, dedicated, a hard worker, selfless, caring, but because of my race and my family’s lack of education, etc. Although there were more people who told me I could than couldn’t, today it is those who told me I couldn’t who made me push myself beyond every obstacle to prove myself right. I’ve found there will always be negative people no matter what you do, but as long as you know your worth and keep moving forward no one can stop you.
Accepted: You’re now an MS2! What have you learned so far about yourself?
Claudia: I wasted so much time worrying about getting perfect grades, trying my best in everything I did and never saying no. Life is too short. Take time to enjoy it. Take time for your friends, for your family and most importantly for you!
Accepted: Looking toward the future, what do you see yourself doing once you graduate medical
school? Do you have any ideas about what specialty you’d like to go into?
Claudia: My dream since I was a little girl was to be a “brain surgeon.” So as far as specialty, neurosurgery. But my patients’ safety is my #1 priority so my hand function in the next few months will play a major factor in what I can and can not do. Other things I’m considering is neurology, neonatology, PM&R and hospitalist. In general, I love working with many non-profit organizations. I have three causes close to my heart that I plan on starting my own organizations for. I will also be publishing a book about my journey of becoming a doctor while a patient!
Accepted: Lastly, what are three things you’d love to tell people who are just starting out on their med school journey? Any words of wisdom?
1. Even though we may not see it in the moment, hardship is often a blessing in disguise.
2. Compete with no one but yourself.
3. Never give up.
You can follow Claudia on Instagram (@claudiaimartinez). Thank you Claudia for sharing your story and advice – we wish you continued success!
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