Since she was a kid, Mariely Garcia has wanted to be a physician. And though she is still unsure in what area she will specialize, she is adamant about being a doctor who is sensitive to the unique lives and backgrounds of her patients, and to the sociological, economic, or cultural factors that may have contributed to their illnesses.
A neuroscience major, Garcia has won a Watson fellowship to spend 12 months traveling the world. She will focus on learning about some of the obstacles that prevent people from obtaining healthcare and achieving health. In this process of learning and observation, she said she hopes to begin the cultural aspect of her medical education.
In her Watson application, Garcia writes that she wants to increase her “capacity for listening, supporting and empowering patients and above all…to recognize, affirm, and address the needs of patients that are hidden in the shadows.”
Garcia learned something about the way that cultural misunderstandings can affect medical care while growing up in New York City. She is the daughter of parents who emigrated from the Dominican Republic; her father works as a truck driver and her mother is a babysitter. Garcia got used to translating for her family members and other Spanish speakers in clinics and hospitals. She also became accustomed to encountering doctors who struggled to understand her family’s particular situation or hardships.
Each year, the $30,000 Thomas J. Watson Fellowship is awarded to approximately 40 graduating seniors from select US colleges or universities, affording them an extraordinary chance to pursue “purposeful, independent exploration.” The recipients are asked to visit countries they have never been to, and to not return to the United States for one year.
The overall aim of Garcia’s year of travel is to “explore how marginalized parts of people’s identities affect their experiences accessing health services.” She will look particularly at how gender, sexuality, income, age, and legal status erects barriers to care.
She begins her travels in Quito, Ecuador, where she plans to work with one organization that takes care of child workers, and with another organization focused on the elderly.
Then she will travel to Guatemala to volunteer with a consortium of nonprofits that are trying to increase the quality of reproductive healthcare for indigenous Mayan women.
She will then move on to South Africa to study LGBTQ patients and their access to healthcare and interactions with medical providers.
She will also travel to Italy, to work with the groups treating migrants and refugees fleeing countries in the Middle East or Africa.
Her last stop will be in Cambodia, where she will volunteer with a hospital that offers not just medical attention to its patients, but also social and educational resources. The Angkor Hospital for Children “caters to people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and takes a holistic approach to medicine,” Garcia explained. “I’ll get a sense of the possibilities and limitations of offering healthcare in a holistic setting.”
After she returns from her journey, Garcia said she will likely look for work in the public healthcare or healthcare policy world and apply to medical schools. She hopes that after a year of travel she will have had her “biases” challenged and will have been pushed to “reimagine what is possible within medical settings.”
“The best doctors are the ones that recognize and affirm the humanity of the people they work with,” she said. “By individually engaging with these marginalized identities, I hope that I can immerse myself in conversations of resilience, empowerment, and hope. I believe that my time abroad will not only strengthen my capacity to be sensitive to patient needs but also to connect more deeply, creatively, and empathetically across difference and to recognize, in all that I do, the power and value of all life.”