Dr. Edwin E. Méndez Velázquez, a UMHS 2019 grad, is a proud native of Puerto Rico and started an Emergency Medicine residency at St. Luke Episcopal Medical Center (Hospital Episcopal San Lucas) in Ponce, Puerto Rico this summer. Dr. Méndez Velázquez was one of the few graduates from Puerto Rico to match in Emergency Medicine at the hospital. He enjoys working in Emergency Medicine because it allows him to treat patients who have experienced trauma or a catastrophic health event, allowing him to save their life and be a hero.
The UMHS Endeavour spoke to Dr. Méndez Velázquez in a telephone interview just a few days before he was about to start his residency on July 1, 2020 at St. Luke Episcopal Medical Center. We spoke about everything from how he first became interested in medicine to how he learned about UMHS through webinars and conferences hosted by an admissions representative, why he feels he benefitted from ARP (the Accelerated Review Program), to the professors who helped him through med school and how he scored high on the USMLE Step 1 to advice on matching, why he wanted to return to Puerto Rico for residency, his research with the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) in Puerto Rico, his thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic, and more.
Dr. Méndez Velázquez on the day he learned he Matched back on March 20, 2020. Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Méndez Velázquez.
From Moca, PR to Med School
Dr. Méndez Velázquez hails from Moca, a community near the northwestern coast of Puerto Rico, about 35 miles north of Mayaguez. He attended the University of Puerto Rico at Aguadilla and majored in biology and biomedical sciences.
“I took a lot of credits in biomedical sciences,” he said. “I did biology/biomedical sciences and when I decided to choose a medical school, I did research. One of my friends told me about UMHS and they were offering webinars and conferences and he said ‘you need to check out this school.’ ”
He was particularly impressed with the high USMLE Step 1 scores at UMHS and that made it his top choice for medical school.
“I think the high Step 1 scores were the most important part for me,” he said regarding choosing to study at UMHS.
He also liked the idea of attending medical school outside Puerto Rico. He knew that medical school would be intense with a lot of classes and studying, and he needed to go somewhere he could really focus on studying medicine.
“I remember thinking I want to finish my career, I need put in some hard work so I thought it was better if I left town because if not, I’d have a lot of distractions in Puerto Rico.”
Dr. Méndez Velázquez (center) with his parents at Lincoln Center in New York City for graduation. Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Méndez Velázquez.
ARP (Accelerated Review Program)
At a conference in Puerto Rico, Dr. Méndez Velázquez met UMHS Senior Associate Director of Admissions for the Southeast and Puerto Rico Earl Mainer. At the time, Dr. Méndez Velázquez was not sure if he was ready for medical school. Earl Mainer encouraged him to apply. Dr. Méndez Velázquez was accepted into the ARP program, a one-semester curriculum designed for students who have the drive to become successful physicians, but may need additional academic and study skills to ensure success in medical school. ARP provides students with the academic foundation and tools necessary to excel, with lots of personalized attention. He found the ARP program, often described as “medical school boot camp,” a good way to prepare for the challenging academic work of basic sciences. UMHS students cannot apply directly to ARP, but can be admitted if the Faculty Admissions Committee feels a student would benefit from completing the ARP program before moving on to basic sciences.
“I think ARP is a good transition from undergraduate to medical school,” Dr. Méndez Velázquez said. “Med school is very different from undergrad because when you’re an undergrad, you have time to hang out and just be relaxed but medical school is very serious. You must put in a lot of effort and an investment of time and money so you need to work hard because it will affect your career. So, I think ARP is a good transition. They tell you a lot of ways that you need to study, a lot of advice so after you take ARP, you know what is important and you don’t waste time in basic sciences studying things that aren’t on the exams. One of the best things you learn in ARP is how to study, how to invest and manage your time.”
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ARP prepared him well for basic sciences, and Earl Mainer continued to offer him encouragement and support.
“I have always been in touch with Earl Mainer and he was always encouraging me, telling me, ‘You have the qualities, you put in a lot of effort, you will be fine,’ so he was always at my side, encouraging me to go forward and I had great people from the beginning because Earl Mainer was the one who interviewed me. I remember he would say ‘You will be fine with your English’ so that for me was very reassuring.”
How UMHS Faculty Helped Him Excel
In St. Kitts, he encountered many great professors, all of whom gave him the individualized, one-on-one instruction he needed to do well.
“From day one, associate professor of gross anatomy and microbiology professor Dr. Abayomi Afolabi was awesome for me, he was always there for us, very accessible as a professor. The same thing with biochemistry professor Dr. Prakash Mungli and also physiology professor Dr. Jagadeesh Nagappa. Neuroscience professor Dr. Michael Doherty was very helpful for us, and even when we left St. Kitts to do rotations and to start planning for residency programs, they were all there for us. If you email them, asking for any advice, they answer you of course as fast as they can, so that was awesome, too.”
He said professors were always available to give one-on-one help whenever he needed it.
“If you are studying in the library and you need to ask one of the professors something, you just go walk over to their office and they are there for you,” he said.
In addition, sometimes students from Puerto Rico struggle with their English-language skills, but Dr. Méndez Velázquez believes studying in St. Kitts and Maine, with all courses taught in English, helped him in the long run because he was totally immersed in the language.
“I did well also because the classes at UMHS are all taught in English, so I got to practice my English a lot and that really helped me on the CS exam.”
Photo courtesy of Dr. Méndez Velázquez.
Why Emergency Medicine?
Dr. Méndez Velázquez pursued a career in Emergency Medicine after seeing there was a tremendous shortage of doctors in this area of health care in Puerto Rico.
“I think after Hurricane Maria and earthquakes and all the stuff has happened in Puerto Rico, I faced the reality that here in Puerto Rico there are not a lot of Emergency Medicine doctors. If you compare it with some of the subspecialties, there are fewer Emergency Medicine doctors in Puerto Rico. After so many disasters, I saw how much Puerto Rico needed Emergency Medicine physicians when the Emergency Room was full of people with trauma and different diseases. I saw that moment and thought, ‘I can be a hero here,’ because when someone is rushed into the ER, you are there helping them at a time when they are very vulnerable and that is so rewarding. That is one of the successes that I’ve had in my life, to be able to help people in a time of great need. When you are an Emergency Medicine physician in a stressful situation like a hurricane or earthquake, you will be there and you are the master of the Emergency Medicine group, so I think that’s pretty awesome.”
Did he consider doing residency outside Puerto Rico?
“I applied for residency in a lot of states but after Hurricane Maria and the earthquakes, I saw how much Puerto Rico needs Emergency Medicine physicians, so I think I always wanted to return to Puerto Rico and try to work hard for our medical system.”
Dr. Méndez Velázquez is pleased to be returning to Puerto Rico for residency. After graduating, he did research at the CDC in Ponce before Matching. Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Méndez Velázquez.
Match Advice for Students from Puerto Rico
What advice does he have for current or incoming students about attending UMHS and also the Match process, specifically for students from Puerto Rico who want to Match in Puerto Rico?
Dr. Méndez Velázquez said he believes it takes more than just a good Step 1 score to do well in clinical rotations and eventually secure a residency.
“Of course, you must do well on the Step 1, but when you are in clinical rotations, take some initiative and always be the first one in the group of students to ask something,” he said. “If you’re in clinical rotations and someone wants to delegate something and asks who wants to volunteer, you should be the first one. Just put up your hand and say, ‘Yes, I want to do it.’ So, you need to be proactive and also show up so the preceptor and attendings will say ‘he or she’s always there.’ What hospitals want is someone who is not only intelligent but will also work hard.”
If possible, Dr. Méndez Velázquez said, he believes “you need to show everyone that you work harder than anybody.”
Why Residency is an Important Part of One’s Medical Career
He said he believes residency is such a crucial part of any graduate’s medical career for many reasons.
“I think the residency program is the most important part of your medical career because it’s where you need to start learning the most that you can because, in a few years ,you will be in an ER with five, maybe four doctors below you that are waiting for your rules and orders, and you will be the principal guy there, So I think residency is a time to learn and learn from your mistakes because somebody will be there guiding you. If you want to be a hero, you need to practice right now, in the residency program. This is the time to learn all that you can so if you do something wrong, somebody can correct you and by the end of the program, you can be one of the best physicians they produced.”
Research with the CDC in Puerto Rico
Dr. Méndez Velázquez finished school in December 2019 and then did a research program with the CDC in Puerto Rico. The CDC’s Dengue Branch in Ponce, Puerto Rico is one of the world’s largest research units devoted to finding ways to prevent and control the tropical disease dengue fever. The CDC also conducts research on other tropical and airborne diseases in its Division of Vector-Borne Diseases (DVBD) Puerto Rico office.
“We did research there about dengue fever and all airborne diseases, Zika, chikungunya, and while I was there, I approached the Emergency Medicine doctor because he’s in the same hospital and asked if they do research and he said yes,” he said. “So, I started working there and I was the person in between the CDC office and with Emergency Medicine at the hospital, so I put them together and I helped with data.”
Becoming a Doctor During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Dr Méndez Velázquez learned that he matched in Emergency Medicine at St. Luke Episcopal Medical Center in March, the same time the COVID-19 pandemic started wreaking havoc in the USA and Puerto Rico.
“The first thing I talked about to my mother when I matched in March was we were in the beginning of the pandemic, so my mother said ‘Okay, Edwin, you matched, this is a very exciting moment and I’m very happy, but what about COVID-19?’ ”
His mother was worried, as most parents would be, about her son working in a hospital with a pandemic unfolding. At first, he was a little apprehensive, thinking “this is not the best time” to be starting residency.
“I want to be truthful. In the beginning, I was like ‘Oh, my God! COVID-19 can infect you in the Emergency Room,’ but I think since I started medical school more than four years ago, it was for a crisis like this. Right now, the hospitals and patients need us 100% so it is our moment. We never thought we’d have to battle a pandemic but right now the world needs physicians because we are the heroes in these moments. At first, I was scared, but right now I realize it’s just my time to prove that I studied medicine because I want to help people and not because of the money. You become a physician because you want to help people, so which time is better than this one?”
What Should Students & the Public Know About COVID-19?
Dr. Méndez Velázquez has many thoughts about the current pandemic and all the false information and misconceptions about COVID-19. He said he thinks younger people need to understand the gravity and scale of COVID-19 as a dangerous disease.
“I think we need to take it seriously because some people just think this is just a hoax or tall tales,” he said. “You can say ‘no, I will not get that disease ‘ because it only affects older people,’ but we just need to keep being careful, continue to research it and read all we can about it because it’s new for us and it’s new for everyone, it’s new for the people in the hospitals and the CDC and for everyone in the States, so the most important thing is to stay up to date on the research and treatments and all the information being put out, on the Internet and elsewhere. We know we need to look for information on good websites from reliable media outlet sources. We need to be updated constantly with the very latest information, we know that the symptoms are different in some people and need to know about the different treatments available. If you read everything about COVID-19 on a regular basis, I think it’s the best way to help people and help your physicians to help save lives.”
Staying informed and updated is the best way to dispel myths and get the facts out there to the public.
“If we read up on the virus and stay updated, we will have everything in our hands,” he said. “I think the best way if you are a resident or attending physician or a med student is continuing to learn about the virus. When you are a med student, your family thinks you are a doctor already and they believe in you and because you read a lot. You know this virus is very difficult to stop so you need to continue with precautions, you need to wash your hands, you need to protect yourself by wearing masks when you go out to do things like buy groceries. We cannot say this ‘okay, this COVID-19 is gone,’ we cannot believe in myths like now that it’s summertime, COVID-19 is less strong than other times of the year. It’s better to try and prevent ourselves from getting infected than to do nothing and get infected and then say ‘Oh my God, look what happened! I got COVID-19 and I’m okay but my mom died because I was out at a bar with some friends and wasn’t taking precaution and then came home and infected her.’ So, we need to keep telling people all the rules that we have already like washing your hands and trying to eat well and take your vitamins to boost your immune system so you can fight off the disease if you get it.”
On the U.S. mainland, many states locked down for just a few weeks and then re-opened businesses quickly due to pressure from local and state governments and the White House, but critics say many opened back up too early without doing enough testing and contact tracing and some say this is why certain states have a huge spike in COVID-19 cases. Although Dr. Méndez Velázquez has not yet treated any COVID-19 patients, he has known people in Puerto Rico who battled the virus.
“Here in Puerto Rico, the husband of my cousin was one of the first COVID-19 cases in Puerto Rico. He was pretty young, 28, and he recovered fairly well. He just went to the hospital for two days and then was discharged.” But he said he realizes not everyone will be fortunate enough to recover quickly.
What can be done to help stop the spread of COVID-19 until there is a vaccine or an effective therapeutic drug?
“I think we need to continue with the social distancing, keep washing our hands, we need to keep using our PPE like masks,” he said. This is very important if you are a student or a resident, you need to have your own PPE [in case a hospital runs out of its supply].”
He said he sympathizes with people who have lost jobs and businesses that have lost money or had to close due to the pandemic, but it is a sacrifice that we must unfortunately all learn to face.
“I know the economy will continue to suffer but without our lives and our health, there is no economy,” he said.” I know here in Puerto Rico, some businesses are already open but we need to stay at home as much as possible.”
Puerto Rico was one of the first U.S. destinations to implement a curfew during the COVID-19 pandemic, starting at 10pm until 5am each day. The curfew ends on June 30, 2020 and the island officially reopens for tourism on July 15, 2020.
Does Dr. Méndez Velázquez think the curfew has been a good idea?
“if you are home at 10pm, that means there are no night bars. For example, in a nightclub, everybody is all together, touching, talking out loud. We need to continue with social distancing until we have either a vaccine or a correct therapeutic treatment for COVID-19 because right now we are just administering treatments that we don’t know if they work, we know that some treatments work. For example, some steroids [such as dexamethasone] are effective. For some people it’s working, but for others, it’s not but it’s all we have. This is not influenza.”
Dr. Méndez Velázquez said the initial lockdown was necessary to allow time for people to prepare, especially so hospitals could buy all the PPE needed to face the disease.
He said he believes Puerto Rico should follow the guidelines set by governors in states in the Northeastern U.S.
“We need to follow the examples of states like New York, New Jersey and Connecticut that locked down early and had people shelter in place,” he said. “For example, Florida needs to lock down now because if not, the virus will be even more out of control there. The other day [June 26, 2020] they had like 9,000 new cases in Florida in one day and that’s very alarming.”
Dr. Méndez Velázquez said it would be beneficial for most areas to continue practicing the same rules as the states that right now are doing okay—many of which are still in Phase 1 or Phase 2, are still partially closed and have not yet shown a second wave.
The Politics of COVID-19
Dr. Méndez Velázquez is well aware that some have used the COVID-19 pandemic to make political statements, resulting in so much misinformation and divisiveness nationwide.
“Sometimes we cannot believe in the government 100% because it is political. I think right now, our numbers are possibly too high. It doesn’t matter what the government says; we all need to adhere to the same rules and practice the same social distancing, wearing PPE like masks when you go out to do essential daily activities like buying groceries and then go home. We need to keep space in the hospitals and ICUs for COVID-19 patients who become very ill and have really to be in the ICU and have comorbidities like hypertension or heart and lung problems.”
Younger people need to realize they should be part of the proverbial solution and not part of the problem.
“You may think ‘I’m less than 40 and nothing will happen to me,’ but there are a lot of people that die in their 30s from COVID-19. If you are a medical student, you need to think of your peers and you need to think of [young people] and think that could be you. The ones you are working with or caring for, you could catch the disease and almost die so we need to be careful and continue helping and defending others.”
Optimism & Persistence Pay Off
Dr. Méndez Velázquez urges current and prospective students at Caribbean medical schools to not get discouraged and always remain optimistic. He is not ashamed to say he did not Match right away and he had to endure and overcome many struggles as a medical student.
“In my whole career, when I didn’t Match the first time and I did the research for the CDC, everybody was like ‘Oh, my God, what can you do?’ but there was something to do. I did the research for the CDC. Right now, in my CV I have one and half years of research with the CDC which is pretty awesome. While I was doing that research, I got in touch with the Emergency Medicine attending physician and he will be my boss right now [ during my residency] so I think this helped me a lot. So, there are a lot of ways you can get into a residency program; you just need to work hard and look for all the alternatives that are out there for you.”
(Top photo) Dr. Edwin Méndez Velázquez. Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Méndez Velázquez.
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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.