Dr. Carlos A. Villanueva Soto is a UMHS Class of 2023 graduate and starts an internal medicine residency at the University of Puerto Rico in Centro Médico de Puerto Rico, PR this summer. Dr. Villanueva Soto is one the most prominent UMHS students from Puerto Rico and worked as a UMHS Media Ambassador for many years.
Dr. Villanueva Soto also did a huge amount of volunteer work in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria hit back in 2017. In fact, the impact of Hurricane Maria was actually part of the reason he applied to UMHS in the first place because he did not want to wait around trying to get into another medical school, and a visit to an information seminar hosted by Senior Associate Director of Admissions, SE & Puerto Rico Earl Mainer at UMHS helped convince him to apply. He is pleased to be returning to his native island to work in internal medicine because there is such a great need for doctors in Puerto Rico. Anyone who knows Dr. Villanueva Soto understands he has always been more than just a medical student; he is a true humanitarian, with a deep love and concern for helping the people of Puerto Rico with both their healthcare and everyday needs.
The UMHS Endeavour spoke to Dr. Villanueva Soto about why he wanted to become a doctor, why he chose UMHS over other Caribbean medicals schools, his deep passion for helping people in his native Puerto Rico and the doctor shortage on the island, and much more.
Dr. Carlos A. Villaneuva Soto in St. Kitts. Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Villanueva Soto.
Internal medicine residency in Puerto Rico
UMHS: Dr. Villanueva Soto, I want to wish you congratulations and welcome you today. Could you tell us a little bit about your upcoming resident and what it feels like to Match?
Dr. Villanueva Soto: It feels amazing and it doesn't just feel amazing because of the fact that I Matched. It's just also because of the fact that I Matched at my first-rank-of-order list hospital. I feel that that is a really big accomplishment in my book and I know that for a lot of people studying medicine at St. Kitts been the same. So that's basically it. I mean, I feel ecstatic and I feel amazing to be back home.
That was one thing I wanted to say, Dr. Villanueva Soto. It must be really awesome to Match back home in Puerto Rico. It must feel really special and amazing.
So yeah, I mean, coming back home to the place that saw me grow, that saw me become who I am, it's just great. Studying abroad in St. Kitts and moving throughout different states of the US really gave me the opportunity to develop new attributes and skills. I developed myself in the medical aspect outside of my homeland starting in St. Kitts, where I learned my basic sciences, and then moving to clinical rotations through different states in the US where I started to learn how to be a clinician. And I am just really motivated to continue expanding my skill set here in Puerto Rico. Not just coming back as a fully made physician (post-residency), but to actually train here during residency and help the communities here while I am learning to become an internist, I mean, it's an amazing opportunity.
What would you like to accomplish during your residency?
So, first things first, get used to the residency lifestyle. I've spoken to many of my colleagues that have graduated from UMHS who are currently residents, and I have been told that the most difficult thing has been the adaptation process. It's a big leap from being a medical student. But one thing is for sure, I feel prepared to make that leap and to develop myself as a full-blown physician during residency. So that's one of the first things. The second thing is to keep learning, we never stop learning. Once we move outside of medical school and jump as a physician in a resident position, I think that is where the majority of our learning occurs in order to finish residency as a complete clinician. In third place, research. I want to contribute to the scientific development, literature, and community here in Puerto Rico. So, those are some of my short-term goals for residency.
Could you tell us one or two things that you really like about studying at UMHS and also why you think that UMHS is so popular amongst med students from Puerto Rico?
I feel that UMHS is really appealing because first of all, it's the facilities of the island that are just state-of-the-art. The courses are well organized, and learning feels cumulative, which is great to experience. We also get to be hands-on with state-of-the-art laboratories (Anatomy, Neuroanatomy, Clinical Medicine). We leave the island knowing how to write proper notes (History and Physicals, Progress Notes), and we’re prepared from the beginning on how to do a proper physical examination. I feel that we leave St. Kitts very prepared to jump into clinical rotations and additionally, we have a really efficient way of doing it by transitioning into Maine. In my case, it was a little bit different because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Regardless, I felt really prepared to jump into clinical medicine leaving St. Kitts. So, I think that the quality of education that the UMHS St Kitts campus offers, is very appealing to current and prospective students. I feel that UMHS is really popular with the pre-med community in Puerto Rico because there have been too many success stories coming out of St. Kitts.
I feel that UMHS is a current viable choice for prospective students in Puerto Rico. From my experience in most of the hospitals that I set foot in, not only in the United States but mainly in Puerto Rico, UMHS already has an amazing standing and we have set the bar to what is expected of a high-performing medical student. So, attendings and residents speak highly of the quality of the UMHS students. To me, that shows that UMHS is doing things right.
Dr. Carlos A. Villaneuva Soto at work. Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Soto.
Is there anything else that you would like to tell current or prospective students or alumni about UMHS? And I'm just curious, did you first learn about UMHS by one of the info seminars that we do throughout Puerto Rico several times a year?
Actually, the story of how I applied to medical school goes back to Hurricane Maria and how that kind of set me back in terms of taking my MCAT in time in order to apply by a certain deadline for schools in Puerto Rico. I opted out of waiting for a whole year to apply to medical schools in Puerto Rico, and I took the leap into St. Kitts. After I graduated from UPR, I was completing some courses prior to the MCAT with the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo. There I had the opportunity to meet Earl Mainer, and after that conference about UMHS, I decided to pursue my medical career in that very institution. I felt really at peace choosing St. Kitts as my option and I just jumped into it.
One of the things I would like to tell prospective students and actual students from UMHS is the same thing that I told some of the colleagues back on the island when I was doing a presentation on trauma for one of the clubs in St. Kitts. I told them that I did not regret for a second studying medicine in St. Kitts. I don't regret having to move to St. Kitts to pursue my lifelong dream. In the beginning, I wasn't really sure what the future had for me; however, I kept my goals really clear, and I did everything and then everything that I could do to be where I am today. I am becoming who I want to become thanks to the decisions that I've made throughout these last few years. So, if you're thinking about studying medicine, and you're thinking about UMHS, go for it.
Definitely some wise words. And anything else that you'd like to say to students from Puerto Rico or students, in general, considering UMHS?
Go for it. We are very well prepared. Hospitals are already talking about the high-quality students UMHS prepares. We have set the bar really high and we're just going to keep improving on that.
Dr. Villanueva Soto in one of his favorite photos outside the hospital. Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Villanueva Soto.
Growing up in Puerto Rico
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Where did you grow up in Puerto Rico and did you always want to be a doctor?
I am a US citizen living in Puerto Rico. I grew up in a small city in the northern area. It's called Hatillo. And my story of how I wanted to become a doctor is a little bit atypical. It is not your typical story of somebody that grew up wanting to be a doctor or had an experience that changed their lives and made them want to study medicine. For me, it was a very conscious decision. I fell in love with [industrial] microbiology when I was studying at the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo. I fell in love with the aspect of microbiology, but I felt that I needed something else to fulfill my lifelong goals. I felt that microbiology kind of stood short and it was a very limited aspect or there was a limit in the things that I could do in that area of sciences.
I also fell in love with the aspect of social sciences. And to be honest, what came out of there was just studying medicine. I put two and two together and decided to study medicine, because the basics of how diseases have always existed throughout history and how we have tried to make people feel better, patients in this aspect, really just stood out and I just completely fell in love with that.
When you arrived in St. Kitts, I'm sure you encountered a big Puerto Rican community that was very welcoming. But let's talk a little bit about some of the professors and the staff members in St. Kitts, Maine and also the New York office and during clinical rotations, is there anybody that you'd like to give a shout-out to that was really helpful or inspiring to you along the way?
Of course. Even from my first semester, I vividly remember anatomy with Dr. Thomas McCracken, Dr. Fakoya, and Dr. Afolabi. I remember biochemistry with Dr. Prakash Mungli, physiology with Dr. Jagadeesh Nagappa, Dr. Shankar from pharmacology, Dr. Anoop Jalan, both Mrs. And Mr. Jalan for pathology, along with Dr. Alfred Roy. I could keep mentioning names. But to be honest, I feel that there's people even from the staff. I can remember Ms. Lovestein back at the cafeteria. There are so many people I would like to give a shout-out to. Even from the New York offices such as yourself, Scott, and Ryan—you’ve all helped me a lot throughout my time in St. Kitts and involved me in things that I never would've imagined that I would be involved with, such as the social media aspect of UMHS. I just keep mentioning over and over people because there's so many people that impacted my time throughout St. Kitts and I feel really grateful for each and every one of them.
Dr. Carlos Villanueva Soto helping out after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017. Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Villanueva Soto.
The impact of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico
I got to know you best when you did all this really amazing outreach to help the people of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria hit a few years ago. We've talked about this in the past, but can you just summarize what that experience was like? Because I know even here in New York City or all over the US, I think people couldn't believe the scale of what was happening in Puerto Rico. What was that experience like for you, and what are some of the things that you did to help the community during this horrible catastrophe?
I feel that my experience of Hurricane Maria, was the same as the majority of the population of Puerto Rico, it was a turning point in our lives. For me, it was a really big turning point in terms of why I kept pursuing medicine. The experience of being in such a devastating situation made me want to get out of my comfort zone and go out and help people in any way that I could. I ended up partnering up with Medlife at the Inter-American University of Arecibo and the Red Cross of America to go out on different missions to help out different communities. And doing that, with my heart in my hand, I can tell you that it was such a gratifying experience to help people out. At that point in time, I knew pretty much nothing about real medicine, right? Because I was still a pre-med student. However, I felt that my future had to be composed of something that gave me what I felt at the time whilst helping my communities. Those experiences made me realize this is who I want to become.
I'm sure you encountered just a lot of just really difficult situations. I don't know how long the island was without power, but I know we have a lot of people from Puerto Rico in the New York office that have families and they were all sending care packages down there and batteries and lights and food and water and all kinds of stuff. I know it was just very sad what was going on. So, I can imagine that was just very intense for you.
We talked earlier that you were very involved at UMHS and obviously, you helped us out—Ryan Ross and I and the Marketing Department as being one of the very first UMHS media ambassadors. Would you like to share with current and prospective students why getting involved with clubs and also doing volunteer work like you did in Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria, and how that helps you become a better doctor in your opinion?
Yes, I had the opportunity to work with you and Ryan and that made me also learn many new things and grow in different aspects of my life, even though it was social media oriented. I was involved with so many prospective students that ended up going to UMHS and are currently at rotations right now. It was a really gratifying experience. What I can tell to prospective, and current students is to just get involved with any club. And if there isn't a club that you don't identify or feel comfortable with, just go out and create your own. Assemble your own group of people and work towards something you believe in.
We all want to continue becoming better clinicians as time goes by and we want to keep learning because this is our profession. So definitely clubs are a really great place to start getting involved with communities and with yourself. Learn new skills, learn new assets, get ready and prepared for clinical rotations. You don't have to wait for a natural disaster to actually go out and help people out in your surrounding communities. Volunteer work, in my eyes, is one of the biggest and best things you can do in your free time as a medical student because it helps you and it will positively reinforce your passion for medicine.
Internal medicine as a specialty
Let's talk about what interests you the most about internal medicine as a specialty.
Internal medicine caught my interest since starting my first clerkship in Michigan. It's a medical specialty that deals with the prevention, diagnosis, and treatments of internal diseases in adults. So, you have to learn and know a little bit about everything, and that really spoke to me. I'm a big-time learner and teacher. Now, being able to effectively communicate with patients, explain to them how their medications work, and explain to them how their illness is affecting them, is something that makes me feel driven and fulfilled.
The abundance of opportunities that there are in Internal medicine to educate and impact the lives of those in need is one of the biggest reasons I ended up deciding for Internal medicine. Additionally, Internal medicine offers me that intellectual stimulation that I crave that I need in my day-to-day as a clinician. Being able to learn so much, and being able to provide high-quality medical care to your community while doing it is amazing.
Doctor shortage in Puerto Rico
Okay, great. We talked about this a little bit earlier, but I don't know, is there still a doctor shortage in Puerto Rico? I know a lot of people tend to go to the mainland, but is there still a doctor shortage in Puerto Rico? And if so, you did really want to specifically match in Puerto Rico, correct? You wanted to go back and help out at home.
Yes. There is currently a shortage of specialists. There is a massive exodus of physicians moving out of Puerto Rico and moving to the mainland, with one of the reasons being the current situation we have of insurance companies taking over everything that we care about, which is making sure our patients get proper healthcare. Overall, we sadly lack the mechanisms to prevent this exodus and retain medical talent in the island. And not to get too much into that, but yes, definitely there is a shortage of physicians.
But I still feel that my decision to stay in Puerto Rico is the most correct decision that I could ever make. I did this via the rank-of-order list while applying to residency, and now I am an incoming PGY-1 Internal Medicine Resident at the University of Puerto Rico, the only supra-tertiary institution in Puerto Rico, with a highly academic program. I'm really happy to be able to practice in the best Internal medicine program on the island, and I am also excited that I can continue to stay here and advocate for patients. So that's why I'm really, really ecstatic, really happy, and eager to start off this year.
How UMHS Academic Affairs helped him Match
Our students always talk about the guidance that they get from Academic Affairs, especially people like Patrick McCormick who help students with everything about the Match. Without getting too specific, what are some of the ways that Patrick and his team helped you when it came time to apply for residency?
I feel that the team in Academic Affairs was really efficient in terms of letting us know via email about everything that we needed in order to be ready for the electronic residency application process. In my experience, I didn't really speak much to Dean McCormick throughout this process, however, whenever I did have a few doubts here and there— I ended up reaching out to him, and he always responded quickly and efficiently. I even told him in our few messages back and forth, that he is doing a great job with the department, not just with me, but with everybody. You can write to Patrick McCormick on a Sunday, and he'll reply on a Sunday. So that is a really positive aspect of his department.
Contact Dr. Carlos A. Villanueva Soto via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Instagram at @TipicoCarlos
UMHS YouTube interview with Dr. Carlos A. Villanueva Soto
Scott is Director of Digital Content & Alumni Communications Liaison at UMHS and editor of the UMHS Endeavour blog. When he's not writing about UMHS students, faculty, events, public health, alumni and UMHS research, he writes and edits Broadway theater reviews for a website he publishes in New York City, StageZine.com.