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Palos Heights man seeks Rx for lack of diversity in health care

 Ray Mendez’s first year of medical school at Loyola University has ended, but there’s no slacking off on his “to-do” list.

Next up is “effect social change.”

Mendez, 26, of Palos Heights, recently was selected for an Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, a program in which fellows design community health initiatives. Mendez was one of just 31 Chicago-area candidates selected.

“This may be one of the most important things I’ve ever done,” Mendez said. “As important as medical school.”

The fellowship, a yearlong program, is designed to develop leaders in community health and give students in health-related fields a unique social and economic perspective on issues they may face as professionals. Recipients can be from a variety of fields, but they have a common goal to improve some aspect of health care in the Chicago area.

“Every fellow creates his own program, and we have to put in 200 hours of work toward it over the next year,” Mendez said.

The projects are varied, ranging from putting together a music therapy program for refugee and immigrant children to one that will provide preventative health care for the homeless.

Mendez’s goal is to increase the presence of minorities in the health care profession.

“There’s an acute (lack of) representation of minorities in the health care field. Less than 9 percent of all physicians are black or Latino, and less than 7 percent for nurses, while they make up 28 percent of the U.S. population,” Mendez said.

He said this is significant because there’s a direct link between low minority representation and a lack of health care support for those minorities.

“One of the most important aspects of the program is making sure students stay in touch afterward so that when they succeed and get out of their communities, they can come back and uplift those same communities,” Mendez said.

He hopes to achieve his goal by expanding on an existing Loyola program that works closely with some Chicago-area high schools. He plans to use motivational speeches, activities and an immersion program with the Loyola School of Medicine to introduce students to the field and to encourage them to pursue careers in health care.

A visit to Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago as part of a social justice class he took convinced him that putting the idea into action is necessary.

“When I went to Cristo Rey and saw how enthusiastic the students and teachers are about going to school, I thought, ‘Wow, this is what needs to be done,’ ” Mendez said.

As a Latino student, he has realized the difficulty a minority can face pursuing a career in health care.

“I definitely didn’t have a lack of educational opportunities in Palos, but when I was applying to medical schools, it was still really hard. I didn’t have a mentor to look up to and to guide me through the process,” he said.

He said he didn’t understand why more minorities were not applying to medical school, and he feels like it is his responsibility to help change that. So after some reflection and research, he applied for the Schweitzer Fellowship.

“I feel I have the power and time to do it,” Mendez said.

He said he’s prepared for the challenge of balancing medical school and his fellowship work. He said he’s dropped a few extracurricular activities.

“It’s gonna be tough definitely, but I’ve created a pretty good support network of friends who are really interested in this project,” he said. “So I think I can handle it.”

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