So many of the Claretian Initiative’s programs are built around a belief in the importance of education, having positive mentors, and serving the community to help others. In a neighborhood like Back of the Yards, it can be easy to focus only on the challenges. But there are always success stories too—young men and women who, through hard work and the support of those around them, achieve amazing things.
In the latest installment of our Community Voices series, one young ER doctor from the neighborhood tells the story of how he overcame so much to achieve his dream, and how he now gives back to young people who need help just like he did.
by Dr. Ruben Cardoso (originally published in Oye Magazine)
I was born and raised in Back of the Yards—an underserved, low-income neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. The culture of the neighborhood made its way into the schools. It was gang ridden, which encouraged a group mentality; most of the kids acted as a group as opposed to thinking for ourselves. But my memories of my early childhood are that it was very rich. I was loved. My mom stayed at home and was the strong figure in my life who created both security and warmth for me. I am 31 now and a Resident Physician in the Emergency Medicine Department (what most call the ER) of the University of Illinois at Chicago Hospital.
Prior to medical school, I volunteered as a Spanish Medical Interpreter at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Chicago, which is a high-volume level-1 trauma center that mainly caters to the underserved and underinsured. I was able to experience the full breadth of the ER for two and a half years. My experience ranged from the benign abdominal pain complaint to having to tell a 16-year-old boy's parents that he had been shot multiple times and died. It was a humbling experience to see that the ER catered to everyone, regardless of their path in life or ability to pay. I was also impressed by how ER physicians were able to quickly establish a trusting and caring relationship with patients. I enjoyed the intrinsic workings of the ER and felt a strong sense of belonging to the department. I knew that once I was in medical school, I would be pursuing emergency medicine as a career.
Part of the strong connection that I felt to emergency medicine is the fact that I am no stranger to the kind of tragedies that I frequently encountered in the ER. By the time I was 13 years old I had witnessed countless gang beatings and shootings. Not having any college graduates in my family meant I had little guidance and encouragement from my family to pursue a higher education.
As a teenager, I grew angry at the violence, cruelty, and injustice around me. Why were there no doctors in my neighborhood to help the people who needed it? Why did so few of us graduate from high school? Why were so many of my friends locked up? Instead of drowning in my anger, though, I channeled it, recognizing that anger could be used as a catalyst for positive change. My grandfather had always given me a dedicated work-until-you-succeed work ethic. In spite of some mistakes I was making, I always kept my grades high; I always had heard that education was the key to a better life. I was at the principal's office too frequently as I was trying to sort things out. I started listening more to principals, some of my teachers, to my pastor, and thinking more for myself.
I had a huge self-protection shield up to keep me safe in life; but slowly, as I listened more and trusted more, I began to develop new relationships with real loyalties . . . even from adults to me. I helped in the neighborhood wherever I could. I didn't realize I was actually building a résumé of social service volunteering. I received a special scholarship to a college in Indiana. My first two years in college were rough; even with my high grades from my high school, I was not as well prepared as my classmates. I had never had experience with most of the science lab equipment that the rest of them clearly had used many times before.
I am often asked if I am brilliant, if I am a rare exception from my neighborhood. It is very important to be clear on this: The answer to both questions is no! It took hard work, a lot of determination, a commitment to stick with it even when I was tired. I had to learn to sacrifice something easy for "right now" (like watching TV) to do what was important for me (like studying); and I learned to use resources everywhere—asking professors for help and getting advice on tutoring options.
I graduated college. I worked for a few years after that. Armed with a new perception of my work in the world, I have dedicated my time to working with at-risk youth, mentoring college-bound students, developing health curriculums for high school students, assisting in setting up health workshops, and teaching bystander CPR at many community events. All of these activities have been very rewarding, and I will continue to engage in these types of activities throughout my lifetime.
In communities like the one where I grew up, it is important that I can serve the whole patient, fully cognizant of their life in the community. I can understand why someone who cannot afford medications would cut their pills in half, how a miscarriage might result from lack of prenatal care due to the couple waiting for their Medicaid acceptance, and why countless gang beatings are seen in the emergency room. Certainly, I would not know the answer to every problem a patient faces. Instead, I can address the patients' needs within the context of their experience, with empathy and understanding of the many challenges they may face.
I am committed and dedicated to being of service to others, particularly the marginalized and underserved populations. As I continue through my medical career, I seek to obtain an outstanding balance of intellect, wisdom, and compassion. In the future, as an attending physician, I see myself actively involved in health-disparities research and as an advocate for underserved communities. I also envision serving as a mentor for medical students or residents and emphasizing the importance of humanistic medicine. I firmly believe my values and goals complement the mission of the Emergency Medicine field. And I have chosen to live in my Back of the Yards neighborhood. My best friend from way back told me, "People go to college to get out of neighborhoods like this. You went, and then you are back!" For me, this is the best way to stay involved, to make a difference.
tCI’s Cultivating Hope campaign supporting Holy Cross’ woodshop in this neighborhood is a great way to support young people working hard to achieve their goals just like Dr. Cardoso is. Read more about the campaign and consider making a donation today: