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Match Day 2011 Profile: Marco Angulo, MD

UC Irvine med student goes from rock star to doc star

Finish high school, his parents told him.
Get a diploma. That's all we ask.

When he finally did, Marco Angulo, his fingertips callused from endless guitar playing, handed the sheepskin to his father.
    "This is for you," he said. "I don't want to go to school ever again."
    The last thing he wanted to do was work with his father, laying carpet. Like every wannabe guitar god before him, Angulo, who barely graduated from Schurr High in Montebello, dreamed of becoming a rock star.
    Money. Fame. Women.
    Didn't happen.
    Then, eight years later, living out of his car, virtually disowned by family and friends, something more amazing did happen.
    At 26, Angulo launched a remarkable second act — a change that's about to end with an impressive title in front of his name.
    Dr. Marco Angulo, MD.
    Rock star? Close, but no.
    Medical star? Absolutely.
    Or so say a growing number of groupies who see Angulo as a role model in the Latino community.

    Sitting in his Irvine apartment, his fiancee, Anabel Arroyo, locked into her own medical book, Angulo works on his licks.
    His band, Romantic Torture, an East LA alt-rock group that put out an album in the mid-'90s, and which still gigs regularly, is set to play the Whisky in West Hollywood the next day. So, wearing headphones plugged into speakers (to avoid blowing out his neighbors), Angulo glides his fingers up and down the neck of his beloved Ibanez, the electric guitar he's had since 1991.
    "I Felt the Rain"
    "Space Oddity"
    All three songs are on Romantic Torture's 40-minute playlist. Angulo wants to make sure he nails the solos.
    "My fingers," says a laughing Angulo, 41, "don't do what they used to."
    Ah, but they do something new.
    On June 17, Angulo will begin his residency in the family medicine program at UC Irvine Medical Center – and, from that day on, officially be known as "Dr. Angulo."

    It was Sergio's idea.
    Sergio Angulo told his younger brother, Marco, to change direction. That was when Marco was in the car and his music career wasn't panning out and he was, at 26, a lost soul.
    Do something, Sergio urged; sign up for community college.
    Then Sergio told Marco something Marco had never heard before.
    "You're a pretty smart guy."
    Angulo is recounting his story to students and faculty members at Cal State Fullerton. He's there as part of a forum on racial and ethnic diversity in graduate education.
    Smart guy? Sure. But he's hardly alone; Angulo says there are plenty more like him.
    The number of Latino, African American, Pacific Islander and other minorities, he tells the audience, continues to be underrepresented in the health care fields. The result is that many ethnic communities are underserved by doctors and other health care workers.
Diversity in medicine, he adds, will lead to increased access to services, higher patient satisfaction, and more culturally sensitive health care.
    For Angulo, the path to making a difference started when he figured out what he wanted to do.
    Taking Sergio's advice, Marco enrolled at East Los Angeles Community College. Soon, he discovered the twin passions that fueled his 15-year-journey: medicine, and serving the Latino community.
    "If you want to do something," Angulo tells his audience, "you have to start believing in it."
    Muniba Siddiqui, 27, a first-year graduate student in political science at CSF, was impressed.
    "He's an inspiration," Siddiqui said of Angulo.
    "He had this conviction and went for it."

    After community college, Angulo transferred to UC Berkeley, where he majored in Chicano Studies.
    In 2006, he was accepted into the School of Medicine at UCI, into a path of study with the ungainly name PRIME-LC, also known as the Program in Medical Education for the Latino Community. The five-year program, among the first of its kind nationally, trains doctors and leaders for underserved Latino communities. The medical training includes a summer in Mexico.
    Dr. Charles Vega, director of PRIME-LC, says he knew from the start that Angulo was a special student.
    "Marco is one of the most gifted people I've ever met in terms of his ability to connect to human beings," Vega says. "He has great empathy and reasoning."
    Angulo, even as he studied, worked with medical school faculty to create a summer pre-med program for local high school students.
    Vega sees it as part of Angulo's bigger journey.
    "His whole goal is to create a pipeline for (minority and disadvantaged) students to succeed not only in medicine, but in all education programs."

    Angulo would sometimes practice guitar 18 hours a day. In medical school, he studied with the same determination.
    Now, he's hoping to find a balance.
    At the end of his recent gig at the Whisky Angulo tipped his hat to the crowd. He knew this would be his last show before starting his residency. He was swapping the stage he was most comfortable on for something new — the world of medicine.
    That night, he played his heart out.
    "I've always considered my guitar an extension of myself. The strings are like silk and the neck and frets feel like butter ... I could play my guitar for days."
    Soon, Angulo's fingers will be palpating abdomens to check for tenderness, tapping on backs to check for fluid in the lungs, and feeling for enlarged lymph nodes to rule out – or help detect — cancer.
    Residency will last three years. After that, Angulo plans to hang out a shingle and serve the local community.
    "I see myself as more of a coach or consultant, where I tell the patient, 'Let's do this together,'" Angulo says.
    He remains active in groups such as the Latino Medical Student Association, and he speaks regularly to Latino students.
    "It wasn't too late for me to become a doctor," Angulo says. "No one should ever feel that it's too late for a second act."
    The key, he adds, is finding the right fit.
    "When you wake up in the morning, ask yourself what you love doing.
    "And then do it."

From The Orange County Register; photo by Steve Zylius, UC Irvine Communications

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