Campbell University medical student Venus Oliva talks about how she went from Long Beach, California, to Buies Creek, North Carolina, and why global medicine is her passion.
“Go to school. Go to school. Go to school.” Over and over again Venus Oliva’s father told her that. He had emigrated from Guatemala to the United States and didn’t receive an education beyond middle school. He encountered hardship in the U.S., particulary finding work and supporting the family. He didn’t want her to struggle as he had, he told her. Neither did her mother.
An instructional aide and a high school graduate, Venus’ mother read bedtime stories to her every night and made sure she attended the best schools in their district in Long Beach, California. “It was a combination of their actions and watching them struggle that pushed me,” Venus said. “Getting an education was drilled into us.”
The oldest of four children, Venus went on to become the first in her family to graduate from college.
After earning a bachelor’s in psychology from the University of Southern California, she managed an ER scribe program for five years in Los Angeles. Through the program, undergraduate and post-graduate students interested in medicine shadowed physicians at two ER sites. They learned about the ins and outs of being a physician, from the paperwork to interacting with patients.
“It definitely provided the global experience of how to work in the ER room,” Venus said. “It was an invaluable experience for the students -- and for me.” It confirmed she wanted to become a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, or DO. She went on to earn a Master of Science in Global Medicine from USC; and recently, she completed her first year as a student at Campbell University’s Jerry M. Wallace School of Osteopathic Medicine, which opened in August 2013.
Though a California native who had never been to North Carolina before arriving in Buies Creek for her medial school interview, Venus chose to be part of the Campbell medical school’s inaugural class because of its team-oriented faculty, holistic approach to medicine and education, emphasis on interprofessional education, and global health opportunities. Her goal is to eventually open her own clinic abroad and work in a teaching hospital. “I will practice in the United States,” she said, “but I will also practice abroad because I think it’s important that I learn what’s going on out there to bring back here to educate others and to know how to better treat patients.”
This summer, she’ll spend the month of June in India helping set up a medical clinic.
Venus spoke to Campbell.edu about what she’ll do in India, why she chose to study osteopathic medicine, her passion for global medicine, and how Campbell is preparing her to open clinics in remote areas. The following is an edited transcript.
What will you do in India this month?
A physician I used to work with in the ER has his own nonprofit. It’s broad in the sense that he has every aspect of something that can affect someone’s life, including a microfinance program and public health programs, specifically related to clean water. This summer he is lifting off his own health clinic, and I’m going to help him do that.
Why did you want to go?
This was a unique opportunity for me because I need to learn how to actually establish an organization and the contacts I have to have to make it work. A lot of that was embedded into my master’s program, but I want to see it actually play out. Also, I’ve never been to India before. I don’t know the language, and that’s going to be a challenge for me. I was more comfortable traveling through Latin America because I knew the language and the culture.
What did you do in Latin America?
The CEO of the company I worked for was aware of my interest in international medicine and suggested a brigade group to go abroad with. However, I was unable to attend because I was not a student of that institution. But I still wanted to go so I pulled together my own trip. I took my mentor, an ER physician I worked with, and 10 of my colleagues. We went to a remote area in Honduras. The next year we went to Ecuador and the third year to Panama. Each year we added something to the services we were offering. The first time we offered medical and dental care. The next year we tagged on public health. And the third year we added OBGYN services, built a pit latrine, and had a community service project. We went to an orphanage and played soccer with the kids and repainted their soccer field.
What did you take away from those experiences?
I feel comfortable traveling to Latin America because I am Latina; however, to natives of that country, I am a Westerner. As an American we have to realize that we cannot impose our belief system; we have to try to integrate it with the community’s. This is why the holistic approach to medicine is so important in fully treating patients.
When did you make the decision to go to medical school?
I started college as a theater major. I loved acting; I sang; I danced; I played the violin for 12 years. It was my passion. But doing it in school was different, and it wasn’t for me anymore. I knew you didn’t need a degree to act; you need an agent and headshots. I began to think about what I’d like to do. Well, a large part of theater is psychology. In order to play your part well, you have to know the personality-type and develop idiosyncrasies and a whole background for the character. I’m good at that. So I switched my major to psychology my sophomore year and bumped theater to a minor.
Then I went to a presentation about a volunteer program at the Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center, or L.A. County General. I grew up going to that hospital as a kid; we didn’t always have insurance and that was the county hospital where you got your care. I began volunteering there because I wanted to do something with people and give back to the community. I am bilingual, so I was able to assist physicians who didn’t speak Spanish and I was able to help patients who didn’t speak English. I enjoyed it. And as a volunteer, I was able to rotate through different departments, including OBGYN, pediatrics, and internal medicine. You’re able to make all kinds of connections and find out where you fit. I received positive feedback, and I decided to tag on pre-med.
After finishing your undergraduate degree, you entered the workforce instead of going directly to medical school. Why?
I started working for a start-up company that manages scribe programs in which undergraduates and post-graduates shadow physicians. I took the job because I knew I liked working in a hospital setting, but I’m not a student who got straight A’s as an undergrad. Psychology was a breeze for me, but I struggled with the pre-med classes. I knew I wanted to do medicine, but I didn’t know if I could do it. I thought taking the job and working in an ER would show me if I can survive medicine and actually become a physician. I did my thing and found mentors in people who thought I could do it. They gave me confidence.
Why did you choose to attend Campbell’s medical school?
The staff made an impression on me. At other schools, the environment was much more tense and it didn’t feel like everyone worked as a team. It was cutthroat. When I interviewed here, it was a completely different feel. They are family-oriented. Also, I have a master’s in global medicine, and the electives and the programs they have here in global health were attractive to me. The fact that I could take an elective abroad was unique, too. Their mission is right along with what I believe in.
Osteopathic medicine’s foundation is on a bio-psycho-social model. My work in the ER solidified that you need to have more well-rounded care. We always address the medical issues and what happens biologically, but what about the other factors? Say you have a patient who fell. After doctors get a scan and fix a bleed, they have to decide whether to send patients home or admit them. You got to wonder sometimes how the social aspect might affect that. Why did they fall? Did they trip over carpet? Do they know about security precautions they should take? Do they live alone? Do they need someone to check in on them? Are there emotional things that preceded the event that brought them to us?
I think well-rounded care is the only way to treat a person because you can’t just solve one problem if the others are still lingering.
What are your plans in medicine?
One of my mentors is an ER physician, who is half Latino. That played a huge role in encouraging me because there are few Latinos you see working teaching hospitals, which I hope to eventually do. I love teaching, and educating younger generations is important to me.
Also, global medicine is my passion. My goal is to become a physician and open up my own clinic abroad in a remote area that would serve every need for marginalized communities.
Where did your passion for global medicine come from?
One day my brother got jumped. He ended up having his jaw broken in two places, and his teeth were dangling out of his gums. But we didn’t have health insurance at the time. The first things that come to your mind are “How am I going to pay for this” and “Where do I go?” We ventured to L.A. County General, the public hospital 38 miles away. My brother was OK, but I saw then that L.A. County serves a huge population and sees a lot of minority patients. Many were immigrants who didn’t speak English. I began to wonder what is going on.
When I started volunteering at the hospital when I was in college, I saw all these patients who were immigrants and who didn’t have an education or know the language. Many have these chronic diseases they developed before they came to the United States but don’t know it, and when they get here something sets it off and the problem is now 10 times worse. They come to the hospital when the disease is in a late stage and there’s very little we can do for them. That’s compounded with infectious diseases not native to the U.S. that you see and have to treat. It always frustrated me that we don’t learn about many of these diseases not native to the U.S. People do cross borders and bring with them different diseases, and we have this large influx of immigrants; yet we aren’t trying to do something about it to fill this gap in knowledge and health care.
You also look at the dynamic of physicians who train abroad and don’t get paid enough so they start coming here to the States. You get a “brain drain” in other countries. But those countries still have health conditions, and no one is there to treat them. All of that is a constellation of what drives my passion for medicine and the work I want to do abroad, as well as in the United States.
How is Campbell helping you achieve your goals?
I have friends who attend other medical schools, and we often touch base about what we’re doing. Campbell’s medical school is advanced when it comes to integrating interprofessional and early clinical opportunities. I just finished my first year, but we have already gone out and shadowed physicians; my friends at other medical schools haven’t had that clinical experience yet.
The interprofessional events are also unique and something I got involved in right away. Unless you’re opening up your own private practice and it’s just you, you need to learn how to get along with everyone. The goal of our interprofessional events are to learn how to work with different specialties and to learn what they do, what their responsibilities are, what they can handle, what they can’t handle, and the role you play in that web. This interplay is extremely important in holistic patient care.
You said earlier that you began college as a theater major. Have your experiences in acting helped prepare you to be a DO?
Definitely. I started stage acting in the 3rd grade. You’re given the character, the lines, and a rough outline of the relationship with others, and then you develop the backstory. Being able to step into someone else’s shoes is applicable to life in general and when dealing with people, especially in medicine. You don’t know who is coming into the ER. You don’t know their socioeconomic status, what happened to them yesterday, what happened to them today, if they’re married, what’s going on with their children. You interview them to get a more well-rounded picture in order to treat them properly. That acting experience can help me maintain the bio-psycho-social model and keep an open mind and not get tunnel vision, which can happen easily under stress.
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Interview conducted by and edited by Cherry Crayton, Digital Content Coordinator
Photos by Bennett Scarborough