(May 2018) When Erica Martinez was 14 years old, she was sure she would become a political activist when she grew up. As the daughter of a Mexican father and white Jewish mother, Martinez had observed injustices first hand.
“I couldn’t deny the difference in the way my father’s side of the family was treated versus my mother’s side of the family,” she said.
Two years later, Martinez read Mountains Beyond Mountains, a biography of anthropologist Paul Farmer, MD, and his work fighting disease in impoverished countries, and she understood that as a physician, she could match her desire for advocacy with her love of math and science.
After graduating from Denver’s George Washington High School, Martinez focused on helping the underserved while attending Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. She earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology with an emphasis on community global health.
Next, Martinez accepted a two-year fellowship in a vaccination program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and was assigned to work in some of the neediest neighborhoods of south Chicago, where many of her coworkers were raised.
“They taught me that at the end of the day if you don’t connect with the community you’re not going to help your patients because you don’t understand where they are coming from and what it’s like to live where they live.”
At the time, Martinez was considering the fields of public health and medicine.
“I learned a lot from that experience. It showed me how much I love working one-on-one with people. The higher up in leadership you go in public health, the further away from the community you are. That’s when I decided definitely to become a doctor so I could focus more on patient interaction and the community.”
Martinez was eager to find an opportunity for advocacy when she joined University of Colorado School of Medicine. It came during her first year when the Association of American Medical Colleges issued guidelines for creating undergraduate medical educational curriculum for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender patient health.
With the help of Rita Lee, MD, and Steve Lowenstein, MD, MPH, she helped create an elective class for first- and second-year medical students.
“I just saw this deficit and wanted to fill it,” she said. The class aims to help future doctors see a visit through the eyes of their LGBT patients. “Even the most well-intentioned people ask patients questions in a heteronormative way without meaning to.”
She also joined Community-Students Together Against Healthcare Racism to work with neighborhoods near Anschutz Medical Campus. Martinez, who became director of the program in her fourth year, worked on several projects including a summer camp for north Park Hill youths to learn about health care careers, and an initiative inviting the community to help revise the school’s problem based learning curriculum.
Martinez has participated in the school’s Urban Underserved Track, too.
“I wanted to have a constant community with similar values because it’s easy to lose sight of why you’re in medicine when you get caught up studying for tests and Step One. I wanted a constant reminder of why I’m here.”
In her third year, Martinez joined the Denver Health longitudinal integrated clerkship where she had the opportunity to work with immigrants and the economically disadvantaged. She liked the hospital and hopes to return after her residency at Stanford University. “I love the idea of a safety net hospital that at the same time is an academic institution so I can play out all the roles.”
She sees her selection of obstetrics-gynecology as part of the continuum of advocacy work.
“I think a lot of what I’ve done can be related to women’s health in some way. It’s a specialty primarily rooted in social justice because women’s health always seems to be a controversial topic. For some reason, giving someone agency in their health care is seen as controversial.”
Martinez, 28, an inductee into the Gold Humanism Society, said the projects she was involved with during medical school helped her learn how to become a leader in medicine for the underserved and nurtured her love of teaching.
“And it’s nice to have a little role in making this place better than when I found it.”