The Non-Traditional Path: Francisco Solorio

Author: Maggie Cobian-Perez

Maggie is a rising 5th year student at UC Berkeley and a BSP Peer Advisor.  Her non-traditional path and interest in literature fostered an early passion for the lives and stories of others, steering her towards a degree in English.  She hopes to improve the health narratives of underserved communities in the future as a primary care physician.


 

The numbness came like a cold embrace, creeping slowly into the solace of his lungs and soul.   A whisper of life escaped in a hard breath of exhalation.  The encroaching winds of the unfaithful snowstorm were not to be trusted.

These were the final days of Francisco’s paramedic preceptor training.  The calamity of the child reverberated throughout Shaver Lake, like the murmur of the first gush of spring across the icy river’s winter carcass.  In the distance, stood the reflection of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, proudly poised against the menacing horizon of the challenge ahead.

The child had suffered a series of seizures-- Status Epilepticus.  The fate of Francisco’s unconscious passenger now anxiously lied in his hands.  So fragile was the pendulum of life.

He was pensive, but calm as he hurriedly placed the child onto the ambulance gurney. His sense of urgency was magnified by the stubborn pang of perspiration permeating into the abode of his eyes.    Time raced against the velocity of the ambulance van; the premonition of defeat loomed in the distance.

They had radioed a helicopter, but the wrath of the snowstorm could not be quelled.   Her relentless vehemence kicked up violent sheets of heavy snow, enveloping both the van and Francisco’s mind.

His eyes drifted towards the IV lines extending out of the child’s pallid hand. It was hard to believe that even after advanced life support training, all he could do for his passenger was breathe for him. 

He slowly fixed his gaze on the rhythmic compression of his hands on the ambu-bag.  On that long drive to the ER, all he could think about was getting through the next hour and a half without any further complications.

But what clamored louder was the ruminating thought that still lingered from his last day in paramedic school. Only 19 years old, as his pen inscribed the last morsels of knowledge onto his notebook, his conscience erupted with dissatisfaction, “Is this it”?

Francisco gave a long look through the ambulance windshield; the immaculate frost was beginning to give way.  And it all became clear…

Francisco Solorio with friends at UCB Graduation

(Left to Right: Ike Eke, Francisco Solorio, Uche Eke, Bryan Arias)

An early foundation of  perseverance and non-conformity emerged out of Francisco’s parents own humble but ardent convictions.  His mother immigrated to San Jose, California after gaining political asylum from Managua, Nicaragua in the 1970’s.  His father’s hardworking rural upbringing in Mexico was a place where the land was cultivated for the purpose of survival, rather than profit. The circumstances of unforeseen events led both Francisco’s parents to an alternate avenue in the United States.  They were to eventually meet in Sacramento by way of the San Joaquin Valley.  Francisco’s father and family, continued to till the fertile soil.  In the way that his father’s hands nurtured and cultivated the land, so Francisco’s hands were drawn to the landscape of human sustenance and care.

His desire to pursue medicine was catalyzed through an eye-opening experience with a critical pediatric patient during his time as a paramedic.  Because the child was initially under his care, the family’s emotion provoked an innate response to alleviate their desperation for their child in a more profound way. His desire for the medical capacity to do more sowed the seed to become a doctor.

Only a few years earlier, Francisco had dreamed of becoming a fire fighter after seeing another lifeguard, like he, carve out a similar path.  Unsatisfied with the limitations of basic first aid training, his thirst to help others on a more compound level led him to paramedic school as a stepping stone to his ultimate goal.  His life-altering experience on that cold winter day in Shaver Lake brought him back to school once more.

However, the reality of the shortcomings of a public school education in Sacramento came to life upon taking the entrance placement exam, “I began my community college experience in remedial math and science”, explains Francisco when discussing his experience at Sacramento City College, “It was my first semester and I already felt so far behind”.

Over the course of 3 ½ years, Francisco steadily climbed to college-level calculus for engineers and scientists.  He was fortunate to have been paired up with a supportive advisor who also steered him towards a major in Biochemistry.  Not fully understanding the rigor of the path ahead as a 1st generation college student, Francisco “took a leap of faith” and delved in.

Moreover, his involvement in the RISE program (an academic support for students who faced academic probation or dismissal) not only propelled his own success, but the academic outcomes of other students through his work as a math and science tutor. With the support of his mentors, Francisco soon gained admission to UC Berkeley in 2007. 

A good community college friend, who had transferred to Berkeley the semester before, told Francisco to apply to the Biology Scholars Program. He quickly found his niche, “Dr. Alissa Myrick and Dr. John Matsui were pivotal mentors when I transferred to Cal”.

Although he was ecstatic at the opportunity to attend an institution with such “academic providence”, the stark contrast in campus culture led him to question his sense of self. “I felt I didn’t fit in…like there was no room for my thought process”.  Francisco says his whole perspective transformed after Dr. Matsui assured him that his disadvantaged upbringing and street knowledge could be “honed to be advantageous within academia” and he “encouraged [him] to hold on to it”. 

Additionally, Dr. Myrick helped him navigate through the science and research.  “She told me about BFP and steered me towards a great lab, at a time where I had not applied to more than three academic-related things in my life. She helped me broaden the scope of my academic goals and pursue an MD/PhD”.

Francisco knew that science at Cal was notoriously competitive, but never being one to shy away from the obstacles in front of him, he gave it his all every semester. Although at times he felt the backlash of the stringent academic competition in comparison to community college, he continued to move forward, reinforced with the motivation and support of BSP.

Not surprisingly, the fruits of his labor flourished.  In 2012, he gained admission to UC Davis, Keck and Michigan medical schools. He ultimately chose to go to the Midwest for the opportunity to get out of his comfort zone and compete with students who had gone to Ivy League schools.  “I felt it was a chance to prove myself…a kid from the ‘hood, from community college can make it”.

With a year of medical school under his belt, Francisco is nothing short of thriving in Michigan, but no longer pursuing an MD/PhD.  The financial reality of helping his family has allowed him to instead pursue a general MD degree supplemented by research along the way in order to maintain an academic edge.  However, he is happy and feels he made the right decision, “One of the most important things I learned while at Cal was to stick to your goals but allow the room to mold and add to them as you grow as a student”. 

Francisco is also thankful for the classes he engaged in while studying Molecular and Cell Biology as an undergrad, “Value the opportunity to take ethnic and women/gender studies courses.  These are very marginalized groups that students at other universities don’t get to hear from”.  He explains that these courses are something very unique about Berkeley and being a student in the Midwest; issues of gender as a social construct are still difficult to talk about for some.

Reflecting on his path since first embarking on that first math class at Sacramento City College, Francisco’s view of not only others, but himself as well has certainly changed, “I used to be more tunnel-visioned” he says, “all I could think of was the next step in my goals”.  He didn’t realize that the “world was much larger” and that there was “much to learn along the way”. 

The non-traditional path provided Francisco a way to amplify his perspective in the world. Now that he is older, he describes himself as someone who is tolerant and always seeking the opportunity to learn from the perspective of others in the world.  Every encounter, every conversation, is the opportunity to learn from their understanding of the way the world operates in various constructs.

The only thing he might regret as he reflects on his non-traditional path to medicine is wishing he could not have been so “humble”.  “Humility has been ingrained into me because of my culture”, he begins, and “I didn’t know how to be my own advocate and to value myself more”.  He shares that it is ok to have a healthy sense of confidence and to be more outgoing in pursuing our goals—“Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there”.

More importantly, as a non-traditional student, “ do not let the probable path ahead of you keep you from taking that first step”.  He goes on, “going back to school really opened up my mind intellectually.  When you have that goal, just remember, “for every three people that tell you ‘no’, you’re going to find one that tells you ‘yes’”.

Francisco credits his success as an undergrad back to street knowledge basics, “I was able to overcome many obstacles when I was acting on carrying out my career objectives by not only thinking two steps ahead, but also having plans B and C ready to enact in the event that A fell through”.   He says that many of his successes were from “plan Bs and Cs” because things inevitably did go wrong.  It was those “auxiliary plans” that kept his goal of medical school from “completely imploding”.

Moreover, he also advises students to maintain a “bank of advice”-- do not settle for the advice from a single source or mentor.  Rather, one should aim to get information from at least three sources that correspond to the field you’d like to enter—each source should be “successively closer to the ultimate goal”.  For example, as a pre-med student, Francisco initially spoke to a BSP advisor, a few medical students and medical school faculty to synthesize a “game plan”.   With respect to courses in undergrad, Francisco was proactive and sought advice from friends who did well in the course, GSI’s and the professor. “The rule of three was imperative” to everything from “choosing a major, building my study habits, and applying to medical school”, he explains in retrospect. 

Readjusting the lens to the panorama of the future, Francisco hopes to come back to the Bay Area for residency and eventually mentor other students as a medical school professor.  He reminisces on the limited skills he had back then as a 19-year-old paramedic in contrast to the skillset he has acquired thus far in medical school—his hands are no longer tied.  It is no coincidence that he has taken special interest in the area of surgery, where his hands may be the instruments in improving health outcomes of other young pediatric patients in the future.