Member of the Month:
Leo Lopez III, MD
By Perdita Henry
Time is of the essence. We have time, we tell ourselves. Some seem keenly aware of how little time we all have and that knowledge drives them to make the most of every moment, living fully and incorporating all their talents, passions, and education into making the world around them better.
Leo Lopez III, MD, has done quite a bit with his time over the years. Born to Leo and Letty Lopez, Jr. in Starr County, his path began to take shape early. “When I was 9, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer,” Lopez says. “While she was receiving treatment at MD Anderson in Houston, my brothers and I would go visit her. Just the majesty of the facilities and these physicians with long white coats and tools trying to help her get better fascinated me.”
His fascination with medicine grew over the years and he began shadowing physicians, but one warm afternoon during football practice, Lopez collapsed. “I was one of those kids you hear about who has multiple concussions,” Lopez says. “There was a family doc on the sidelines who recognized that. They load me into the ambulance and I go straight into emergency brain surgery.” Lopez suffered a subdural hematoma. As he recovered from the surgery, he made a promise to himself. “I said, if I got out of the hospital I was going to do my best to serve others and prepare myself for a career in health care,” Lopez says. “I met other doctors from that experience. I got to shadow them and graduated from high school a few months later. I majored in bio-medical sciences at Texas A&M and joined the American Medical Student Association.
Since then he has continued to fully embrace life and his calling. From TEDx Talks, to creating his own non-profit organization, to presenting at the World Congress in Rome, Italy, to producing documentary films, to — his latest achievement — being accepted into Yale University National Clinician Scholars Program, Leo Lopez III, MD, is booked and busy. He hasn’t lost his child-like wonder about the world and if anyone can help save it, it’ll be him.
You are a very busy person. What keeps you going when you feel overwhelmed?
What some people might perceive as work, I perceive as fun things I love to do. For me, being a physician is about serving the human condition and I try to be involved with things that serve that purpose. With film I try to tell stories that are important and that will impact people’s lives. I organize my free time to align with that value. The same thing with any initiative we have surrounding public health or health policy. I never feel like it’s work or overwhelming because it’s what I love to do.
Why did you choose family medicine?
Dr. Mario Ramirez was essentially responsible for building the hospital in my county and recruiting me into family medicine. During my time in the hospital recovering from the brain surgery, he came to visit me while I was recovering in the hospital and at home. He groomed me and became a very close friend and mentor.
You have accomplished so much prior to completing your residency. Where does this intense drive come from?
My drive comes from my parents. My dad, Leo Lopez, Jr., used to sell roasted corn, was a garbage man, and then a fire fighter. My mom, Letty, was a migrant farm worker, eventually became a teacher, and served in the public-school system for 30 years. That type of sacrifice was huge, and I have never taken any of it for granted. The people who came before me really inspire me to wake up every day and try to live the best that I can. I never lose sight of that or take it for granted.
I learned at a very young age how valuable and precious life is. Because of those life experiences, being a patient and reflecting upon my own mortality, I wanted to devote my life to improving myself. To being curious and searching for truth in the world. I want to be a part of culture and society as a humanitarian, scientist, artist, and a physician. I wake up every day reflecting on that. Some of the things I live by is to be self-reflective and self-critical. I acknowledge every morning that I am incredibly ignorant. I work relentlessly to improve that condition.
You are the founder of Salud, Su Derecho and participated in multiple medical missions. What does advocacy mean to you?
Salud, Su Derecho, means Health is Your Right. To me, advocacy is about lending your voice and support to others who may not be able to act or speak for themselves. It’s about protecting the vulnerable and to aligning oneself with justice.
What are three things practicing medicine overseas taught you?
From a public health standpoint, I have been involved in clinical work in Guatemala, Central America, and Southern Mexico. Regarding overseas experiences, I was involved with human rights film work in Palestine and in Japan. I connected patient care with those. Having global experiences gives me the ability to really witness the human experience from several perspectives and to empathize and sympathize with these conditions. I love to experience culture in that way.
You directed and produced a documentary film on human rights in Israel and Palestine and you’ve worked on an advocacy film on Japan with the United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth. When did you become passionate documentary film making and does it influence the way that you practice medicine?
We are all storytellers in one way or another. Since the beginning, humans have had a desire to communicate their stories. Throughout medical school, I was an investigative journalist. I wrote for The Lancet in the United Kingdom and the New Physicians in Washington D.C. I wanted to challenge myself to get into other forms of media after those two experiences. I tried to embrace film and use it to tell a story. I ended up going out to the Middle East and was a part of a team that created a film on conflict and the perception of conflict among communities. My passion for storytelling is about trying to encapsulate the human experience – whether it be through film or print. I try and build an emotional connection between the audience and the social condition.
In clinical studies, we’re trying to appreciate the story of the patient sitting across from us. We’re listening, and almost working like an investigative journalist or director at the bedside. We are trying to “shoot” the experience of the person sitting across from us. I think those skills work well together.
Do you have any advice for medical students looking for a global health experience?
Much of my work is focused on the ethical consideration for short-term global health experiences. I just presented at the World Congress in Rome, Italy on this topic. First thing, is to have a focused mission. What we’ve seen going on in global health is this caricature of young people traveling to underserved, third-world, countries and self-glorifying themselves. Not having a mission, going for vacation, and having this medical-tourist experience. They should really be focused on the mission at hand.
The second thing is the mission should be driven by a community needs assessment. The community should self-identify the biggest needs in their community. It could be health literacy, diabetes, sexual education, or a variety of things, but it should come from the community.
Choose something that will allow you to measure the outcome. Many times, when students go out, they go for three or four weeks, and then leave the country. They have no way of knowing if their intervention was effective. For all we know we may be traveling by the millions every year as global health actors and making a negative impact in communities.
Other things to keep in mind is make sure you go through language and cultural sensitivity training before embarking on a trip. The way we express ourselves using non-verbal communications and how we use some words, may not translate directly and could be offensive or harmful. And don’t ever try to do something out of your scope of training. Every student and resident should always have proper supervision and never go to another country to try to practice a skill you wouldn’t do in the U.S.
How can we attract more medical students to family medicine?
The way we do medical education should change. I think we should require rural and global rotations for first, second, third, and fourth year medical students. According to literature on the topic, the more global experiences students have, the better chance they’ll match with the primary care specialty. I think it’s something we should strive for.
I also believe studying social sciences as an undergrad really helps people understand the way social forces and social determinants impact health. Those things have a lot to do with how we practice primary care and family medicine.
If we can show physicians in training what it means to truly be underserved and how to think deeply, critically, and clinically about the whole person through the psychosocial behavioral model of care, then I think they would be more inclined to appreciate what family medicine doctors do daily.
You were recently accepted into the Yale University National Clinician Scholars Program. What is this program about? Why was it important for you to take part in it?
For the past 40 years the National Clinician Scholars Program was a part of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. A few years ago, the program was going to end but the original program sites, Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan, and the University of California Los Angeles, decided to keep things going.
The program teaches a select group of clinicians to impact health care and health policy at the state and national levels. It’s a robust fellowship that includes mastery of the quantitative research method. We focus on mitigating health disparities and serving underserved communities through our training. We will work to master research, community building, community based participatory research, communication, and leadership.
You are in your third year of residency. As you prepare to wrap up this chapter, is there some advice you would give your medical-student self?
This will probably be the most difficult journey you will ever imagine. Don’t forget to stop, breathe, and love. Seek beauty and justice in all that you do.
TAFP’s Member of the Month program highlights Texas family physicians in TAFP News Now and on the TAFP website. We feature a biography and a Q&A with a different TAFP member each month and his or her unique approach to family medicine. If you know an outstanding family physician colleague who you think should be featured as a Member of the Month or if you’d like to tell your own story, nominate yourself or your colleague by contacting TAFP by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (512) 329-8666. View past Members of the Month here.