Alvaro Assuncao had
one regret after his grandmother died.
“I was sad at the time that I wasn’t a doctor so I could have
understood more about what was going on,” said Assuncao, who was his
grandmother’s primary caretaker for two years before her death. “It made me
realize what I wanted to do with my life.”
But becoming a physician in his native Brazil wasn’t easy.
He took the vestibular, a three-day
test required for entry, just missed the cut-off, then in 2007 decided to take
a break and join his father in California.
“I thought I’d come here and work a little bit, learn some
English and go back in six months or a year. I’d take the test again when I was
But the jobs and pay in the U.S. were pretty good despite
his lack of English proficiency, and he decided to stay. He delivered pizza,
worked construction and learned Spanish from coworkers.
“I was keeping medical school in mind, but I was young and I
started to get a little confused. I thought ‘Maybe instead I should buy a
truck.’ I didn’t know what I wanted to do anymore.”
The logical thing seemed to be to learn English. Assuncao found
a language school, but after six months he enrolled in a community college. “I
decided I might as well learn English while doing math and chemistry and
Two years later he entered University of California, Los
Angeles and declared a microbiology major. Within months, he was involved in
research projects and accepted to a biomedical research and scientist-training
Assuncao visited Brazil in 2011 to travel by boat with health care providers working along the Amazon River Basin. He was so impressed that he co-founded the Amazon Medical Program at UCLA and brought five pre-med students with him the next year. They performed pap smears, ultrasounds, blood-sugar tests and other procedures.
Now in Colorado, Assuncao, 28, is hoping to join the global
health track and travel to Haiti next summer. That means learning French – his
fourth language after Portuguese, Spanish and English – so he traveled to
Montreal this summer for an immersion course.
Why Haiti? It’s the poorest country in the western
hemisphere, he explains. He was raised in the Brazilian middle class but was
always aware of the profound socio-economic disparities around him.
“Haiti is poor to a
degree you don’t even see in Brazil anymore.”
Assuncao is also a fan of Paul Farmer, MD,
PhD, who runs hospitals in Rwanda and Haiti.
“That man is something else. I don’t have any heroes or
idols, I’m not a big sports fan, but that guy is a person I look up to. I am a
huge fan of his work.”
He has a five-year education plan because he plans to take a
year to earn a public health master’s degree before graduating medical school.
After that, he hopes to work in developing countries.
“I want to do whatever is most useful,” he says.