Growing up on San Antonio's West Side, Gwen Balderrama saw her father only sporadically. While she was in her formative years, he was in and out of prison.
"I was so young that we (her family) never really discussed it," she said. "All I was allowed to know was that he was in prison sometimes. I always knew our time together would be short.
"My younger brother, Johnny, who's 10, has no memory of him."
Strained was the operative word for Gwen's relationship with her mother, as well. "I was always attached to my dad, which hurt her, so three years ago I went to live with my grandparents. Now my relationship with my mom is much better," Gwen said.
Chaotic family life could have blocked Gwen, a bright 18-year-old, from seeing the possibilities in store for her. But inner desire, caring teachers and an innovative health career learning program called MED PREP kept her on track. This fall, she is a freshman at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and has a four-year scholarship to boot.
"I'm majoring in chemistry and minoring in athletic training, and I want to go to physical therapy school, get my doctorate and go into sports medicine," she said.
Not bad for a kid from near Zarzamora Street on the West Side. But then, this "kid" graduated in the top 10 percent of her class at Sidney Lanier High School and piled up academic honors.
MED PREP was one of her stepping-stones. The program, founded by the Mexican American Physicians Association (MAPA) and co-sponsored by the Health Science Center's Medical Hispanic Center of Excellence, is an extracurricular activity that exposes minority high school students to health careers. It is one of several model programs that link the Health Science Center to one of its most important constituencies -- the health care providers and scientists of tomorrow.
"In neighborhoods with gangs and other negative influences, children may think only of the present -- some of them don't know or care what will happen tomorrow," said Armando Flores, head of the science department at Lanier. "Gwen looks further down the road than a lot of her peers, and MED PREP reinforced her thinking, which is to become the best she can possibly become."
Flores has taught some hard-core gang leaders and knows when he has "lost" a student. "Unfortunately there are not enough programs like MED PREP," he said. "I always think, if we could just get that kid to apply to a program, we could win that kid."
MED PREP targets four city school districts -- San Antonio, South San Antonio, Harlandale and Edgewood. The program is available to students, regardless of ethnicity, at 15 high schools. Unlike Gwen Balderrama, who ranked in the top 10 percent of her class, most MED PREP students are academically at risk.
Those who are accepted into the program broaden their horizons in many ways, such as hearing a lecture at the Health Science Center or Santa Rosa Hospital, or visiting a hospital room with a doctor. MED PREP helps students to establish self-esteem and channel their motivation.
"Some teens just need a little help to overcome the circumstances -- the limited resources -- in which they've grown up," said Jorge Peacher, MD, vice president and education committee chairman for MAPA. "During MED PREP, they meet health professionals who identify with their culture and background and are willing to give back to the community."
Two years ago, local physician Robert Trevino, MD, former president of MAPA, took Gwen on his hospital rounds.
"It was a great experience, really kind of touching," Gwen said. "One of Dr. Trevino's patients at Southwest General Hospital was dying of kidney failure. Seeing the doctor's personal interaction with this man and his wife was very moving.
"Dr. Trevino was telling the family that certain procedures had to be done if the man wanted to live. The patient was in a lot of pain -- he wanted to die -- but his wife was telling him, 'You've been there for me during rough times, so please try and fight through this.' "
"Gwen had a bird's-eye view of the real world of medical decision- making," said Dr. Trevino. "With her and another student, I discussed the case of a 54- year-old man who had cancer in multiple organs. I asked what they would do -- put the man in intensive care or leave him alone? They both said if they were doctors they would not prolong his suffering."
Dr. Trevino is one of dozens of physicians who, every week, bring their invaluable experience to MED PREP students.
Over a four-year period, a MED PREP student will benefit from about 120 contact hours -- hearing lectures, seeing slides, learning to take college entry exams and soaking up advice from medical students.
These events leave a lasting mark, according to a survey of 1992 and 1993 MED PREP graduates. Of the survey respondents, 93 percent had entered college, 85 percent majored in a health profession and 85 percent received scholarships or other financial aid.
"With people like Gwen, we begin to see the fruit of this program," said Melissa Rodriguez, executive director of MAPA and administrator of MED PREP. "The intent of programs such as MED PREP is to provide positive choices, visions of what is possible. When teens see there is more to life than negative behaviors, they can make more intelligent decisions."
The program has limited space and finances. This fall, there was room for only one out of every three applicants.
"The thing that makes me sad," said Flores, "is when kids apply and there are not enough slots. If they're ever to have a chance, we must get these kids into the system."
Gwen Balderrama has been given that chance.
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