Leonel Vela and Mary Unzueta are at very different places in their medical careers, but they share something in common — a desire to see the Lower Rio Grande Valley benefit from an increased number of physicians.
Unzueta, 26, a third-year medical student at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA), is the first recipient of the $10,000 William C. Head, M.D., Family Foundation Medical Scholarship, established by Dr. and Mrs. Head to support an outstanding student at the new Medical Education Division of the Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC). Dr. Head, of Frisco, Texas, is a distinguished orthopaedic surgeon who has authored or co-authored 66 papers on subjects such as arthroplasty of the hip and proximal femoral allografts.
UTHSCSA dedicated the Medical Education Division's new $25 million building June 28 in Harlingen. Gov. Rick Perry was the featured speaker.
Unzueta, from McAllen, is among the first aspiring physicians to study at the RAHC Medical Education Division and its clinical and educational sites throughout the Valley. She also represents an ideal for medical education in the Valley — a Valley native who is a university graduate, who has completed her first two years of study at the UTHSCSA School of Medicine in San Antonio, who will finish her third and fourth years of medical education at the RAHC, and who will stay in the Valley to practice medicine.
"This is the goal. This is the reason the Texas Legislature established the Regional Academic Health Center," said Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D., president of the UT Health Science Center. "Young people such as Mary Unzueta, who now can study and practice in their communities, are the driving force."
It is an ideal inspired by the 75th State Legislature, which in 1997 passed Senate Bill 606 authorizing The University of Texas System to create the RAHC. Senator Eddie Lucio Jr. authored the legislation, which was sponsored by then Representative (now Senator-Elect) Juan Hinojosa.
"The RAHC opportunity is perfect for me," said Unzueta, who received her bachelor's degree from UT-Pan American at Edinburg in 1997 and master's degree in psychology from Texas A&M University at Kingsville in 2000. "I want to go into primary care, because I think the Valley needs more primary care physicians and because we need more of us (young physicians) to stick around. It is exciting to be a part of something that will change the Valley and be good for its residents."
Dr. Vela, in academic medicine at UTHSCSA, is the first regional dean of the RAHC. The Health Science Center is overseeing the RAHC Medical Education Division and the soon-to-be-constructed RAHC Medical Research Division in Edinburg. He recalls that at the age of 15, he was picking cantaloupes with his father in the fields near his native Pharr, a few miles east of McAllen. He told his dad he wanted to be a doctor. The seriousness of the proposal may not have sunk in, Dr. Vela said.
"My father's reality was, we are here in the middle of a cantaloupe field, the sun is beating down on us and we are full of dust. His reality was that to study to be a doctor, you had to be wealthy. This was many years ago. He had very little formal education. It was a long stretch for him to conceive that his son was going to be a doctor. The other reality for him was that there were not a lot of role models — Hispanic doctors — who had met that challenge."
The promising young man later was accepted at Stanford, where he earned his bachelor's degree. He went on to Baylor College of Medicine, which conferred his medical degree, and to Harvard, where he received his master of public health degree.
"An architect's rendering of the RAHC Medical Education Division shows a car parked in front of the building," Dr. Vela said. "It reminds me of a young Valley family driving to a facility like this, of their son or daughter who says I want to be a doctor, and of the parents who say, 'We will take you to a place right here in the Valley where you can study to be just that.' A generation ago there was no place like it, but now there is."
"I can relate to the people of this area because I am one of them," Unzueta said. "My family is a part of the very population that I plan to serve."