Fall 2010
The path of a young doctor

synapse: University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine

Wilfredo Torres

Wilfredo Torres, M.D. is a physician resident in the medical school's OB/GYN program in Las Vegas. Photo by Edgar Antonio Nunez

Wilfredo Torres, M.D.’10 was born in El Salvador when civil war engulfed the small, impoverished Central American country.

Story and Interview by Edgar Antonio Nunez

As a boy, he slept under a straw mattress to avoid the exchanges of gunfire. At the age of 7, Torres made his way to a Los Angeles neighborhood where drive-by shootings were a regular occurrence. At school, the students relentlessly teased the scrawny boy who didn’t speak a word of English and who found himself at times beating back his antagonists with his fists.

After a friend died in a gang-related incident, Torres found a renewed focus on education. He excelled in science and math in high school while working part-time jobs delivering furniture and selling shoes. He was accepted to the University of Nevada, Reno, where he completed an engineering degree. This past May, Torres completed medical training at the University of Nevada School of Medicine and currently training in obstetrics and gynecology at a county hospital.

Synapse: In a recent interview with a local newspaper, you mention a childhood in the midst of a civil war in El Salvador, and later growing up in a tough neighborhood in Southern California. How did this shape you?

Wilfredo Torres: It made me stronger. When you’re faced with these challenging environments, you’re forced to choose one of two paths. You can choose a path of violence—using brute strength, getting into fights, those type of things—or another path, the hardest one—which requires patience and time. This path requires studying, working and helping out your parents. You don’t necessarily see the immediate benefits, but with enough time, you do see the results of your work.

Also, I think it taught me to be less dependent on others—I take pride in that most things I have accomplished, I have done on my own.

Synapse: During these formative years was there someone to help you steer clear of the easier path as you call it?

Torres: Definitely. My parents. It wasn’t so much what they said, but what they did. I watched them work several jobs, watched them struggle and yet still be good people. During the Los Angeles riots [in 1992] for example, many people in the neighborhood looted because it was the easy thing to do. My parents chose not to participate in this. It was at this point that I learned the importance of having a higher moral character and I am very thankful to my parents for that.

Synapse: You touch upon morality and ethics. How does this apply to who you are as a doctor?

Torres: I work at a county hospital. It’s easy to fall into the trap of stereotyping people. People come to the hospital who don’t have health insurance or who can’t pay for medical care—but their care is required. Sometimes another doctor, nurse or health care professional may look down at these patients. You can sometimes see this in the face of a patient—they feel bad because they won’t be able to pay.

When it comes to morals and ethics, when you’re taking care of a patient, you always treat everyone the same. You just never know the full story. You don’t know how they got to this point. You try to be understanding and always give the best possible care that you can give.

Synapse: By currently available census figures, more than 14 percent of the U.S. population is Hispanic, but they make up less than 7 percent of the students coming out of the country’s medical schools, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Why do you think this is?

Torres: Some Hispanics believe it’s okay not to strive so high—simply find a job that involves hard labor and just get by that way. Sometimes there’s also that personal sense that one is not deserving or worthy.

Synapse: Do you think it might relate to the extended family in Hispanic culture and the immediacy of supporting a family which means postponing or setting aside one’s dreams of educational advancement?

Torres: With some families that can be a valid point. That was always in the back of my mind because since I chose to pursue a medical education, I wasn’t able to provide as much as I could have for my family immediately. Now that I’ve completed medical school, I can provide so much more.

It’s tough, but I think that if Hispanics as a group want to raise the standards, we will have to change this mindset. Sacrifice a little more in the short run to be better off in the long run.

Synapse: On a related note, during medical school, you volunteered at a magnet school. Today it has blossomed into an official community partnership between the School of Medicine and Eastside Academy. Why was it important for you to work with students?

Torres: The school’s student body is largely Hispanic. Many of these students have backgrounds similar to like mine. They’re constantly bombarded with ideas that an advanced education is out of reach and that they shouldn’t even think about pursuing one.

I’m passionate about this topic. I strongly believe that an education can get anybody out of any situation. My purpose was to motivate students to further their education and careers. It was a chance to expose these students to options—as you open these children’s minds, they begin to doubt what they’ve been told, which is that as soon as you get out of high school, just take any job. There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what you really want to do, but they need to know there are more options.

Synapse: What do you think are the potential pitfalls of being a young doctor?

Torres: Money is one. You can make a lot of money as a doctor, but when you take that route you could sacrifice the care that you provide patients, as well as your ideals. I believe in helping the uninsured. If you’re going to help the uninsured population, then you’re not going to make as much money. If you start getting into a mindset that all you want to do is make money off medicine, then you forget about what it is that drove you to get into medicine. The next thing you know, you’re just a doctor that’s in it for the money.

The second pitfall is becoming discouraged. The vast majority of patients without medical insurance seek care because they need care, but sometimes there are a few who try to take advantage of a setting where everyone must be treated—for example, “patients” who come to the hospital looking for narcotics. Learning how to deal with these “patients” and coming to terms with this particular aspect of medicine is important.

Synapse: Why did you pursue a medical career in obstetrics and gynecology?

Torres: In OB/GYN, you can work with your hands by performing surgery, which I really enjoy and at the same time, you have that one-on-one with your patients that I need. With some of the other medical specialties, you either only do procedures or talk with patients and you don’t get to do both. I think OB/GYN is perfect in this sense.

Earlier, you asked me who were my mentors. Through most of my academic career, I didn’t have a mentor. However, I was fortunate to meet Dr. Nicolas Spirtos. He’s a well-known gynecology oncologist in Las Vegas. He has all the traits you would want in a mentor. He’s a great doctor and a great teacher. While working with him, I could see the compassion he had for his patients and the drive to do anything and everything that he could to heal them. While doing all of this, he found time to motivate and instruct physician residents.

There are other reasons for going into obstetrics and gynecology, but these are two of the main reasons. Looking at it now, I have an amazing job, a great mentor and outstanding colleagues. I couldn’t be happier.