Interview with Valeria Varela

Please tell us a little bit about your background, including where you are from and how you decided to move to El Paso.

I was born and raised in El Paso and consider myself a hometown girl. I attended Burges High School and then went to the University of Texas at El Paso. After I received my bachelor’s degree, I matriculated into the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine. I have lived in El Paso my whole life and love it here.

What attracted you to Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso?

El Paso is my hometown, and I am very proud that our city has a medical school. It allows people like myself – with family here, and roots – to pursue higher education without leaving. I was also drawn to stay in El Paso for medical school because it’s one of the few schools that addresses the growing Hispanic population. We see a lot of patients from various regions with complications that could have been prevented if they had seen a primary care doctor sooner. As medical students on the border, we encounter diseases and conditions that students at other medical schools may not.

Our city has a need for physicians and for health care. I want to be a part of the solution in addressing my community’s needs.

Have you always wanted to be a doctor? What are you currently studying?

I have always wanted to be a doctor. During my first year in undergrad, I completed an internship at the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine, which immersed me into the medical field. I declared a biology degree and applied for medical school. After graduation, I started my journey of becoming a physician at TTUHSC El Paso.

What year of medical school are you currently in? Tell us about your first year.

I am currently a second-year student. My first year in medical school was eye-opening. I was most surprised at how quickly you begin to see patients. As part of our integrated curriculum, we participate in clinical simulations with real-life scenarios. We see “patients” who talk to us about their symptoms and medical history, and then we diagnose them. This hands-on approach allows us to gain experience with patients, while we study and learn each subject.

What makes the Foster School of Medicine stand out?

I can't say enough about the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine’s curriculum. One of the aspects I really find beneficial is the medical Spanish course. Bilingual doctors are incredibly important for the future of health care as our population changes. I am fluent in Spanish, but being able to speak medical Spanish is different. I still had to learn new terms and phrases and practice with patients. Interacting without a translator is incredibly beneficial to patients as you build relationships and perfect your bedside manner. Our various student-run clinics are opportunities that also makes our school stand out. We take pride in serving various communities throughout the region. Another aspect special to the Foster School of Medicine is that we have integrated sessions with other health care professionals. We have workshops with our nursing students as well as students from UTEP’s School of Pharmacy and Doctor of Physical Therapy Program. These integrated sessions prepare us for future encounters with other health care professionals.

Were you involved in the student-run clinic in Sparks? Is there a moment or story that stands out as being memorable during your time at the clinic?

I was very involved in the clinic. One of my favorite memories is being able to tell the first patient I saw that she was pregnant. It was such a special moment as a health care provider that I will always cherish. The free clinics supported by TTUHSC El Paso allow students, no matter what year you are, to be involved. As a first- or second-year student, you are paired with a third- or fourth-year student, so you have the opportunity to ask questions and learn alongside your peers. There are attending physicians there, but the hands-on experience and patient care you are exposed to is invaluable.

We also have a mobile clinic that allows us to travel to underserved communities throughout the region. We provide them with services they otherwise would not have access to because of transportation, financial reasons or childcare. Anyone can receive care at no cost, which is incredibly rewarding as a future doctor. It’s powerful to see how much care we are able to provide to families who would otherwise not have anything.

What do you hope to achieve through the Foster Scholarship?

Hopefully I make the Fosters proud. They are investing in my future and allowing me to achieve something greater than I could have imagined. I will always cherish the opportunity they provided me, and I hope to one day be able to provide that opportunity to other medical students.

Do you plan to stay in El Paso and practice (after residency / during)?

I am only in my second year, but I would absolutely consider completing my residency here. I am looking into becoming an OB/GYN. Through my experience at the free clinics, I have had female patients who no longer have care (due to loss of Medicaid or insurance) after they turn 18. These young women rely on free clinics because they can’t afford primary care. I want to help women with the care they need – at every stage of their life.

In 10 years from now, what would you like to see at the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine?

I would like to see the mobile clinics expand. This service is crucial for underserved communities and populations, including the elderly. Living on the border, we can help these populations receive care and help treat preventable diseases. An increase in the amount of scholarship donors is something I would also like to see. Lastly, I would like to see our school expand and continue to strive for excellence by preparing compassionate and competent physicians.