Jose Arango, DDS, with Rachel Rodriguez, MD, at her 2014 graduation ceremony.
Rachel Rodriguez says fate has often smiled on her, whether in finding a good job or getting into the right classes. To get into medical school, fate showed up as an orthodontist.
Rodriguez had long planned to become a doctor. A “science geek,” she was dissecting fish eyeballs and putting bugs under a microscope as a young girl.
“When I was in fourth grade (my teacher) unrolled a poster of the digestive system, and I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.”
A physical exam before entering ninth grade turned her love of science into the dream of a medical career.
“(The doctor) was pushing around on my stomach and he said ‘Oh, a little gas bubble. Sorry about that.’ I hadn’t even known that bubble was there. I thought ’He knows more about my body than I do. What a great job. You get to work with and learn about the human body every day.’ My path to medicine illuminated before me in that moment.”
The road to medical school would have been smooth sailing if not for a B in a general chemistry class while an undergraduate at CU Colorado Springs.
“My world came spiraling down. I thought ‘No one wants a doctor who gets Bs.' I was able to convince myself that I didn’t have what it took to succeed in medicine.”
Instead Rodriguez decided on a minor in forensic science (“But that was before the show CSI!” she says, laughing). However, jobs were scarce so a few months after graduating, she applied for a management position at a home health care agency.
“It was fateful,” she says. “It was where I was supposed to be; I had the opportunity to learn so much about myself – making mistakes, admitting them, learning to rely on my coworkers and teammates. I loved every minute of it. I met people who are still some of my best friends and mentors.”
With her first big tax refund, she decided to get braces - another fateful decision.
“Here I am, lying back in the chair, and he started asking me questions – ‘What is your job, what is your degree, what were you going to do with a biology degree?’ I eventually told him I was premed.”
Then Rodriguez explained why she didn’t go to medical school.
“He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘You need to just do it.’ It was pretty much a Nike commercial aimed straight into my soul.”
She spent a few days flustered, thinking about all the reasons medical school wasn’t a good idea and talking with friends and family.
“I decided I would at least try, else I risked waking up at 40, kicking myself that I had never given it a shot.”
Again, fate smiled.
“I had to take organic chemistry and just happened to find a class at the community college right next to where I worked. They offered the class at 5:15, so I could leave my job and get there on time.”
After a year of classes and cramming for the MCAT, Rodriguez applied to CU School of Medicine. She was accepted to the post-baccalaureate program, in which she took a heavy load of science courses for a year before entering medical school.
“It was exactly where I needed to be. I had to relearn how to study and be a student.
“But the best part about that was that when I got the email of acceptance in the post bac program, (the email) was also sent to Natalia Arango, the daughter of my orthodontist. She was accepted into the program, too.”
Once in medical school she found that her time in home health care provided her with a patient- and team-oriented perspective – and even helped define her Mentored Scholarly Activity (MSA) project.
She remembered a particular case in which a team of staff members tried but failed to get a homebound woman to a medical checkup. She recalls thinking how much easier it would have been if the doctor had been able to come to her.
So for her MSA, Rodriguez decided to focus on physician home visits.
As fate would have it, University of Colorado Family Medicine Residency Program was looking for a formal curriculum on the subject. Rodriguez researched, designed, wrote and implemented the curriculum, then taught it to the second-year residents.
“There was not a day in med school when I didn’t use one of the skills I learned in home health care,” she says.
Now she’s bound for a three-year family medical residency at Swedish Medical Center in Englewood. But first she celebrated graduation, where she was hooded by her orthodontist, Jose Arango, who hooded another graduate that day: his daughter and Rodriguez’s good friend, Natalia.