Paving the Way for Future Generations | Hispanic Heritage Month | PCOM
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'It’s Not Common to See Us': Paving the Way Is Bittersweet 
Hispanic Heritage Month

October 11, 2023

PCOM medical student Maria Pazan Avellan (DO ’26)“Growing up, if you got sick, your grandma would put some herbs in a tea,” Maria Pazan Avellan (DO ’26) says with a smile as she reflects on her early years in Ecuador.

“Our wellness visit was going to a guy in the barrio who said ‘you should take this’. I don’t even think he was a real doctor.”

Back then, the thought of becoming a physician was elusive to her. She wondered if a career in medicine was possible. The answer was yes.

At 32 years old, Pazan Avellan began medical school at PCOM.

“It makes me feel very proud and happy, but also lonely because there’s not many of us in medicine,” she said. “It’s bittersweet, but I’m hopeful that at some point the path will open up for many other Latinos.”

PCOM DO student Veronica Ruiz (DO ’26)Others like Veronica Ruiz (DO ’26), who believes humble beginnings are nothing to be ashamed of.

“I wouldn’t be here without the sacrifices of my ancestors,” she said.

“My grandmothers were housewives and maids, my grandfathers were farmers, and my parents worked factory jobs. While those might be deemed stereotypical Latino jobs, I’m proud of my Puerto Rican heritage.”

For Ruiz’s family, there was always an interest in medicine, but financial obstacles stood in the way.

“My grandma wanted to be a nurse and was accepted into school in Puerto Rico,” she shared. “She went, but was removed from the program because she couldn’t afford to continue paying tuition.”

Many years later, Ruiz’s mother turned down a medical assistant position to become a secretary. In this role, which she took in order to secure benefits for the family, she herniated seven discs in her spine. Being the only child, Ruiz took the lead in providing care for her mom at just seven years old.

“After one of her eight back surgeries, my mom was fighting a life-threatening MRSA infection, ” said Ruiz. “A nurse showed me how to push mom’s IV antibiotics and clean her wound. Through this experience, I fell in love with not only medicine but also the act of helping others.”

Even after going through difficult times, Ruiz wouldn’t change a thing about her past.

“Life will take you to places you won’t imagine,” she said. “But I think what happened to my mom happened so I could get into the medical field. Since then, my passion for medicine has become so strong.”

Now, both in their second year at PCOM, Ruiz and Pazan Avellan have fostered an environment of inclusivity as leaders of PCOM’s Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA).

Nearly 50 years ago, Hispanic and Latino medical students yearned for a space to feel supported while in school, so they created it themselves. Five regional organizations were founded, and in 2009 they merged to create one unified group known today as LMSA.

PCOM’s chapter hosts year-round events that highlight Hispanic and Latino culture, customs, and accomplishments. Members also give back to the community by making treatment more accessible to patients.

“Sometimes there’s too much pride and distrust to go see a doctor,” said Pazan Avellan. “Latinos tend to self-manage their own ailments and not seek professional care. Having physicians that look and speak like them will break down those barriers, potentially saving more lives.”

As Hispanic Heritage Month comes to an end, both students are grateful for the opportunity to celebrate their culture and the moments that led them to PCOM.

“This journey wasn’t smooth sailing,” Ruiz shared. “Latinas only make up 2.4% of physicians in the United States. It’s not common to see us, but let’s make it common. Our communities need us.”

Medical students and faculty pose for a group shot of PCOM’s Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA)

From September 15 to October 15, PCOM joins others around the country in observing Hispanic Heritage Month. This important celebration honors the histories, cultures and contributions of Hispanics and Latinos everywhere. At PCOM, we recognize our faculty, students and staff who identify as Hispanic or Latino and will highlight their stories throughout the month.

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