One immigrant’s quest to become a doctor

Last year, 7,308 students applied to The University of California at San Francisco medical school; 149 were accepted.

But only one student in next year’s class is undocumented. That’s me.

It’s the first time UCSF has ever accepted an undocumented student.

My parents came to California to work when I was 9, when the economy tanked in Thailand. They opened a Thai restaurant in Roseville, outside Sacramento. They worked til 11 every night. I always asked my mom and dad, “What can I do to help?” Their answers were never different: “Don’t worry, and do your job”. I really looked to education as the key to success.

Growing up, we couldn’t even think about going to the doctor. It never occurred to me to seek any kind of care. We had the immigrant mindset. Life was about surviving. Not living. We kept our heads down. Worked. Studied. We didn’t care about anything else. Our health was secondary.

We had this big cabinet full of medicine we’d go to when we got sick. It was packed with pain killers. Cold and flu medicine. Ointments for aches and pains. Plus some old antibiotics from Thailand.

Things changed my junior year of high school. We took my mom to the emergency room because she was bleeding excessively. She fainted. She couldn’t understand the doctors and they couldn’t understand her. I translated for her.  She was helpless. I wanted to do something else for her. That’s when I first thought: “I want to become a doctor”.

A lot of undocumented young people like me want to be doctors, nurses, and other health care providers. We started a program called Pre-Health Dreamers. We’re a community of pre-health students across the country, connecting with each other, sharing our struggles and solutions.

We’re going into medicine because our families and friends struggled with health growing up. I want to be a primary care doctor so I can serve people like my parents.

But undocumented Californians like my family don’t have access to the health care I’ll be trained to provide. Even though keeping immigrant families healthy seems like common sense. Without regular visits to the doctor, what starts off as a minor ache or cough can escalate out of control. When people don’t have health insurance, they often wait until they’re really bad off and then head to the emergency room. That’s an expensive substitute for regular medical care.

Undocumented Californians work hard. We put food on your table. Take care of your children. And play a big role in our state’s economic life. We paid $2.2 billion in taxes in 2010. Keeping us healthy keeps us productive and contributing.

And sickness doesn’t discriminate. We’re your neighbors. Your co-workers. Our kids go to school together. If we keep everyone healthy, we can keep California healthy.

I have faced similar challenges before. Things will not change unless we, as Californians, come together to fight for it.

That’s why I’m so excited about the Health For All bill that’s been introduced by Senator Lara in the California Senate. No one should suffer or die from an easily treatable condition because of where they were born. Our system works best when everyone participates. That’s the health care system I hope to work for when I graduate four years from now.

Ed’s Note: This commentary by Jirayut Latthivongskorn is part of the celebration of Immigrant Heritage Month.


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