When Sofia Gonzalez, MD, decided to become a doctor, she didn’t have any idea how to make it happen.
Raised in both Pico Rivera and Denver by a single mother who’d emigrated from Mexico, Dr. Gonzalez didn’t have any medical role models in her family. But she was a good student who loved science and volunteered at a hospital during middle school and high school, so she pushed forward and figured things out along the way.
By the time her younger brother, Daniel Gonzalez, MD, decided to pursue a career in medicine, he could draw upon Sofia’s real-life experiences and hard-won wisdom.
Now, the siblings are working together at UCLA Health. He’s completing his residency; she’s finishing a fellowship in geriatrics.
“As the eldest sibling, you want your younger siblings to do better, to not have to struggle the way you did,” Sofia says. “And my brother went to Harvard Medical School, which is an amazing program. So I feel like I did something right. I led by example.”
Blazing a trail
Even as a child, Sofia knew she wanted to set a good example for her three younger siblings. Their mother emphasized the importance of education, so from a young age, Sofia planned to go to college. As the first in her family to seek higher education, however, she wasn’t quite sure what to do.
“I didn’t know how scholarships work,” she says. “I just decided to go to the place that offered me the most money.”
She ended up at a small, private college in the Midwest, the University of Indianapolis.
When it came time to apply to medical school, Sofia again had to navigate the path on her own.
“I didn’t do so well on my MCAT (Medical College Admission Test). My GPA wasn’t the best,” she says. “But I knew I wanted to do this.”
She opted to go to medical school in Guadalajara, Mexico.
“I was going to do whatever it took to become a doctor, even if that meant leaving the U.S. and going to the country my mom initially left as a child,” Sofia says.
And while it was nerve-wracking to take on such a big academic challenge so far from home, the experience uniquely prepared her to serve Latino patients in California, she says.
“I think I can connect more to my patients. I ask them where they’re from and I tell them where my family’s from and where I trained. It gives them some comfort, some common ground,” Sofia says. “Also, I learned some of these skills in Spanish and I practiced these in the community in Mexico, and I had doctors supervise my Spanish to make sure I was saying these things correctly. In the United States, there’s such a shortage of Spanish-speaking physicians.”
Daniel, too, says he sees relief in his patients’ faces when he speaks to them in Spanish. As a resident who spends a good portion of his time at the Olive View-UCLA county hospital in Sylmar, “I’m really able to deliver meaningful care for these patients — language-concordant care where I can speak to them in Spanish and understand some of the cultural nuances,” he says.
Following a dream
Like Sofia, Daniel volunteered at a local hospital as a teen. He recalls taking an aptitude test in middle school that suggested he’d do well to become an engineer, architect or physician.
He chose medicine so he could be of service and “a positive force of change in my community,” he says.
Even though the family didn’t have much money when he was growing up, he remembers they had access to quality medical care, and he wanted to play a role in providing that for others. Their mom is also “very community oriented,” he says. “I think that’s a huge contributing factor to the success we found.”
Navigating the college-application process was still difficult, he says, but he did have Sofia’s experience to draw from. He received a full scholarship to University of Denver through the Daniels Scholarship Program. Applying to Harvard Medical School afterward “seemed like a far-fetched fantasy,” Daniel says. “It was the last application I submitted.”
Upon graduation, when it came time to apply for residency programs, University of California Health systems and the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA were among his top choices, he says.
“I felt it was important to return to my roots to work with the populations that I’m most familiar with and to use my Spanish.”
Daniel and Sofia are sharing more than just medical training at UCLA Health. They’re also sharing an apartment.
“It’s so expensive to live in L.A.,” Daniel says. “So it’s beautiful. We debrief on a daily basis when we come home. I don’t know that I realized how difficult or isolating it can be when you don’t have family members or friends who are in medicine. I just find so much comfort in having access to someone on a regular basis who does understand, so it’s very therapeutic for me to have my sister there.”
Adds Sofia: “It’s super rewarding to find someone who gets where you’re coming from — because they literally grew up the same way you did — and is going through it with you. Medicine is very unique, and sometimes it’s hard to explain, but he gets it. He supports me.”
The Drs. Gonzalez both hope to stay in California when they complete their training at UCLA Health. Both say they want to serve Spanish-speaking patients like the neighbors they grew up around in Pico Rivera.
And they continue to blaze trails. Sofia says she “never met a Latina geriatrician until I became one.” Daniel, meanwhile, intends to continue developing skills in research, policy and leadership, he says, “to go beyond individual care for people and really think at a systems level … about improving care for people, especially in under-resourced communities.”
Most of all, they’re excited to give back to the community that supported them.
“We are here because of the people that were around us, that took their time to look out for us and help us during difficult times,” Sofia says. “So I want to give back to that community, because it’s my community.”