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David Geffen School of Medicine

Back from the Streets



 By James Maciel, MD '15

"I hope you come back and learn from your mistakes. Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids ... Let 'em know you was just like them, but you still rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person. But when you do make it, give back with your words of encouragement, and that's the best way to give back to your city." - From Real, by Kendrick Lamar

These words of hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar resonate so strongly for me. I, too, came back and learned from my mistakes. And I want to tell my story to those black and brown kids, many of whom I now, all-too-often, must treat for stab wounds, gunshots and other trauma in my surgical residency at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.

Growing up, I never imagined I would arrive at this place, and, as I prepared this past June to take the Hippocratic Oath, I reflected on the journey that has brought me here. The week before graduation, I had some extra time, and I decided to drive through the neighborhoods where I was raised. As I drove along the streets from Garden Grove through Orange and then into Santa Ana, I was bombarded with old memories that I had long ago - at least so I thought - forgotten. Many were stirred by positive cues: the bus stop on The City Drive where I would meet up with Priscilla, my future wife; the house on Flower Street where my brothers and I grew up; the park where my father taught me the basics of being a goalkeeper for my soccer team; and the carniceria that my mother would send me to whenever she needed something to prepare for dinner.

But many of these cues also resurrected memories that were incredibly painful: the towering, salmon-colored Orange County Juvenile Hall where some of my acquaintances and I spent time for delinquent behavior; the alley where a strung-out gang member pushed a 12-inch knife against my belly and robbed me; the intersection where I frantically dodged the bullets from gunfire directed at me by gang members; and the school where a physical-education coach told me that I belonged in an "alternative" school. I guess he thought I might have a better chance of succeeding academically in such a program. And he was right, I did.

I never thought I would graduate from high school - I was expelled from two schools and dropped out of a third before landing in the alternative program - let alone get into college and become a doctor. I wasn't sure at times whether or not I would survive the woes that seemed to be so woven into the fabric of the environment in which I grew up. It was very sad for me as I drove through those neighborhoods - and it still is sad for me now - to think about what became of the friends I grew up with and once treated like family. By the grace of God, the everlasting patience of my wife and the support of loving family members and mentors who saw within me potential, I was able to overcome hardships that no teenager or young adult should ever have to face.

But I did survive, and I thrived. Now, when a fellow intern passes me in the hall and calls out, "Hey, how are you doing?" my response is, "I'm living the dream, man!" Sometimes, he or she looks at me like I am crazy. But it is true, I am living the dream. I am doing something that I had never imagined was within my reach. But when I made up my mind that I wanted something more for my life and the life of my family, there was no turning back.

I was 22 years old when I went back to school, and I hustled, hustled, hustled to get things right and stay on the path to a better future. There were a lot of people who helped me along the way. There was Oscar, a salt-of-the-earth guy I worked with as a painter for a couple of years before returning to school. He was a recovering drug addict, and he showed me that, with commitment and hard work and perseverance, it is possible to overcome tremendous obstacles, make things right and build a family. And there were professors at Orange Coast Community College, where I discovered my love for science, and at UC Irvine and UCLA who recognized and encouraged a passion within me to build a new life.

Just as Kendrick Lamar sings, I "rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person," and now it is my time to serve and give back. Every day, I work with some of the most vulnerable people in our communities - the homeless, the impoverished, the disrespected. So many are like the people I grew up with, and I recognize and understand their experiences. It is very humbling to be in a place where I can do something to help them, and I feel grateful and blessed.

I have no intention of hiding where I've come from and the journey that I've taken. As my life was changed by the mentors who took me under their wings, I look forward to sharing my story and being a mentor to others who are struggling. And I pray as I continue my career as a physician and healer that my experience will help others to find their own path to a better future.


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