Abraham Alatorre,19, has always been fascinated by the complexity of the human body. Now in his third year as a student of human biology at Stanford University, he still remembers being a 7-year-old in Hanford watching blood drip from his scraped knee and wondering, “What makes your blood stop flowing from your leg?”
Questions like this fueled the curiosity of the farmworker’s son, leading him to pursue a career in medicine after graduating from Hanford High in 2019.
Financial assistance for medical school encourages health access in underserved region
Being a first-generation college student, English-language learner and son of low-income farmworker parents presented Alatorre with challenges on his academic journey. They were similar to the obstacles faced by Jessica Carrillo who, along with Alatorre, got financial support from Community Medical Centers to follow her dream of being a doctor.
Through Senator Melissa Hurtado’s Central Valley Dream Scholarship Program, Community helped fund scholarships for five students of farmworker families seeking healthcare careers in a region with one of the lowest doctor-to-patient ratios in the state. Community is committed to increasing access to care, a top regional health need identified in the 2019 Community Health Needs Assessment.
The support for students is part of the health system’s community benefit investment. Last year, Community Medical Centers provided $175 million in uncompensated care, medical education, outreach and patient support services to create a healthier Valley.
English-language learners struggle with school
The daughter of a single mom, Carrillo was mostly raised by her Mexican immigrant, farmworker grandparents while her mother was out working. She got little help at home with her English schoolwork, but graduated top of her 2011 Woodlake Union High School class, the only student to achieve all four of the highest academic honors. However, when she arrived at UC Davis, her academic foundation wasn’t enough to help her excel.
“I wasn’t at the top level anymore. I basically had to start from the bottom and work myself up,” she shares. “I felt that my other peers that I met in my classes were more prepared than I was.”
Alatorre remembers feeling excited but intimidated about attending Stanford University in 2019. “The transition from a small high school in a town with minimal resources was punishing to say the least,” he agrees.
In Kings and Tulare counties where Alatorre and Carrillo grew up, fewer than 45% of English-language learners are able to gain language proficiency before they leave high school¸ according to the 2021 California County Scorecard on Children’s Wellbeing. When it comes to mathematics, only 16% of Kings County children and 23% of Tulare County children achieve college math proficiency — compared to 32% of all California kids.
Carrillo tried to catch up to her UC Davis peers with tutoring support and extra workshops. Eventually she had to drop pre-med courses and shift her major to Chicano Latino Studies before her 2016 graduation. Despite odds and naysayers, she kept her medical career dream alive by pursuing an untraditional academic path.
“I have often been told that I should consider a different career because my academic transcript is not competitive,” she writes in her scholarship application. She went to work as a medical scribe in a Valley hospital and began an unofficial post-baccalaureate program to put her in better standing for acceptance to medical school. “I started taking classes that I hadn’t taken before — anatomy, microbiology and others. I also retook physics,” Carrillo says.
Alatorre remembers being in English-learner classes through third grade. He studied Webster’s Dictionary, watched MythBusters on TV, listened to the radio, and struggled through books to master English. He says he was thrilled when it became easy and he could follow his curiosity into more difficult subjects.
“Seemingly indifferent to my academic breakthroughs, economic responsibilities never faltered,” Alatorre writes of how often the exhaustion of helping his family got in the way of his studies.
Perseverance over adversity creates empathy, resilience
As the second oldest of six children, Alatorre strapped on a carpenter’s belt when he was 13 and worked alongside his father at a Valley dairy, part time during school and full time during breaks. He describes the toil: “Sleepless nights studying after 16 hours knee-deep in livestock feces; volunteering by morning, but having acres of landscaping awaiting by midday; forfeiting sports for a shovel and wheelbarrow.”
Alatorre remembers a hot August day while mixing cement in a wheelbarrow when his father called out a familiar refrain: “Ya te cansaste, mijo?” (“Tired yet, son?”). Alatorre writes, “I had been hearing that phrase since the fifth grade … I was tired. Tired of working. Tired of sacrificing summers. My back ached and my breaths were short from the heat.”
Noticing the discouragement in his eyes, Alatorre’s father took the shovel from his son’s hand and showed him a pen. “Sitting next to me, fiddling with the pen, he asked in a humored tone I clearly remember to this day, ‘Mijo, what weighs more? This here pen or that shovel?’”
Carrillo had similar encouragement from her father. Although he had been in and out of her life since age 3, Carrillo treasured her father’s love and excitement over her academic journey. She remembers his joy watching her high school graduation.
“He was able to see his daughter receive all of the awards. I know he was always proud of that,” she recounts. “I always talked about me attending medical school and me wanting to pursue medicine so I could be a doctor and he would always say, ‘Oh, that’s good, mija,’ or ‘I am so proud, mija.’”
That fatherly support was cut short in April 2017. “My father was found lifeless with multiple gunshot wounds,” she writes. Still living in Davis, she gathered all her belongings and made the four-hour trek back home to grieve the father who believed she would be their family’s first doctor.
Her father’s untimely death struck her hard. “It was something that I never expected to happen so soon and the way he passed away, it’s something that even today, it’s hard to believe,” Carrillo laments. She channels her sorrow into helping patients at Kaweah Health Medical Center where she now works.
Scholarship helps students realize their dreams
In addition to academic barriers and overcoming hardships on the way to medical school, both students have also faced financial challenges that became even more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even though his high academic honors granted Alatorre a full ride — no-cost housing, books and food — at Stanford, in March 2020, he was sent home due to the pandemic and he’s trying to pay for upgraded internet connection to continue his studies remotely. “My presence back home posed a huge financial burden on my parents, especially my dad, who lost his job,” Alatorre shares.
Carrillo was in the middle of preparing for her finals at California State University, East Bay’s Pre-Professional Health Academic Program, when she learned that both her mother and younger brother had contracted COVID-19. Her mom, who is the family’s prime earner and supports Carrillo’s ailing grandparents and little brother, had to stop working because she was so sick.
“I was fighting to finish my finals as my mom was fighting through this virus,” Carrillo says.
The scholarship, funded by Community, allows Carrillo to focus on her studies, while helping her family. For Alatorre, the scholarship means he can cover his basic school needs without placing financial pressure on his family of nine.
The students are grateful for the chance to realize their dreams and make a difference in the communities where they grew up. Both say the obstacles they faced have toughened their resolve to finish their studies and use their experiences to help others.
Better understanding for Valley patients’ struggles
“My past struggles taught me patience was the key to overcoming adversity,” Alatorre says, adding he did not lower the rusty shovel for many summers and he remembered the lesson his father tried to impart. “Entering the classroom, I picked up that pen and ran.”
Alatorre earned the highest academic honors award from Stanford’s El Centro Chicano y Latino for his first two years at the institution. He will start his third academic year at Stanford in fall 2021 and plans to apply for medical school in summer 2022.
When studies get tough he remembers his father who gets up early every morning and returns home tired and dirty from a hard day’s work. It keeps him humble and grounded. “It really reiterates who I am doing this for, why I am doing this, and it also maintains my feet well planted in the ground,” he adds. “It always reminds me of who I come from, where I come from, whose shoulders I stand on.”
Alatorre also remembers the challenges his parents had accessing healthcare. “Sometimes what I was hearing from the doctor and what was being communicated to my mother were two completely different things.” Seeing firsthand that patients like his parents struggle to communicate with doctors greatly influenced his desire to leave the Valley for more education and hopefully return as a practicing physician who communicates to his Spanish-speaking patients in their own language.
Carrillo uses her Spanish skills and personal experience with patients at the hospital where she currently works as a medical scribe. When an older woman came into the emergency department complaining in Spanish about chest pain, she shared with Carrillo, “I have not been feeling well since the recent passing of my 33-year-old son.” Carrillo recounts, “I told her ‘Señora, yo comprendo su dolor’ ('Ma’am, I understand your pain'). I had lost my father not long ago.”
Carrillo says she sees now how her own tragedy helps her better connect to patients. “Engaging with this patient taught me that compassion and empathy are important in helping patients cope ... I want to be a physician who can reduce the inequalities of healthcare faced by the residents in the Valley and provide linguistically competent and culturally sensitive healthcare services. I want to be the physician who provides a pillar of support and comfort for the patient and the family.”
Community’s Commitment to Building Relationships
Our mission of improving the health of our region is dependent on making healthcare accessible to all and working in whatever ways we can to help improve the health of our community. We invest in facilities, expertise, research and technology so everyone, regardless of their circumstances, has access to top-level care. We also reach out to support those in our community making a difference to lower rates of poverty, hunger, homelessness and violence. Read more stories.