When Jaime Gonzales was born, the doctors told his parents that his physical birth defects were so serious he’d probably never see his first birthday. When he did, they told his parents to buy him a wheelchair because he’d never walk, even with the series of surgeries he’d need on his twisted legs and feet. He walked, not well or fast, but he walked.
His parents had emigrated from Mexico before he was born and settled in South Central Los Angeles. His father worked two jobs as a sample cutter in the garment industry; his mother took him to the doctor, hospital and physical therapy.
“They both pushed me,” Jaime said. “When I was little and didn’t want to try, my mother said, ‘Don’t say you can’t. You can.’ That became my attitude, and even when it was hard—I’m in pain even now—it’s never been an option for me to quit.”
Others sold him short. His mother had taught him to read and write but he was put in special education at school. He didn’t want to do what the group was doing; he wanted to sit and read. His mother was told to find another school. She did and there, the first grade teacher saw his abilities and persuaded the principal to put him in the second grade. He then went to fifth grade at a magnet school for gifted children and stayed in magnet programs through high school, even though that meant long bus rides every day.
“I was in the science magnet because I always wanted to become a doctor since I was little and had all those surgeries.” He graduated seventh out of 500 and got a full-tuition scholarship to the University of Southern California, in an eight year combined bachelor’s and MD program.
Winning a Beat the Odds award, he said, helped with living expenses and also shaped his medical goals. He attended a Young Advocate Leadership Training (YALT) at Haley Farm and got involved with CDF’s efforts to enroll children in Medicaid and CHIP by organizing a group of his premed classmates to put on health fairs to sign up children.
This sparked his interest in public health, and he added a year to his education to get both an MD and a master’s in public health. He lost a year when his mother was shot while taking out the trash, and he saw her through two surgeries. He graduated in May. A columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News quoted the former Associate Dean, “I’d see him struggling to get across the campus to be on time for the next class and I’d think, ‘What an incredible kid.’”
Jaime will see a gamut of people—children, adults, pregnant women, almost all low-income—during his three-year residency at a county hospital in Salinas. Then he wants to return home to practice in South Central Los Angeles with the Spanish-speaking underserved and uninsured population. “That’s where there is a need,” he explained, and unlike 90 percent of his medical school classmates, he speaks Spanish.