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Translating lessons from Hurricane Maria to medical school
Emory School of Medicine student Natalia Calzada Jorge

Seeing the effects of Hurricane Maria firsthand influenced Natalia Calzada Jorge’s decision to pursue medical school. Now she’ll combine lessons from that experience with her time at Emory to better serve patients.

Natalia Calzada Jorge, 2022 doctor of medicine (MD) candidate, was born and raised in Puerto Rico. She went to the University of Puerto Rico for her undergraduate education, studying cellular molecular biology and graduating summa cum laude in 2018.

In 2015, Calzada Jorge attended the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) program at Emory, working on cystic fibrosis clinical trials. That summer in Atlanta was defining for her as a student.

“Emory was very supportive and welcoming, and the city was amazing to experience in the summer,” she says. “On my interview day for medical school, Emory truly felt like home, a place so different from what I’m used to but at the same time so similar. I was fortunate to be admitted to Emory School of Medicine and was ecstatic to receive the Robert W. Woodruff Fellowship.”

A stormy beginning to a satisfying career

In 2017, Hurricane Maria landed in Puerto Rico while Calzada Jorge was still an undergraduate. How that influenced her decision to pursue medical school is illustrated in her personal statement for residency:

Crisis does not discriminate — but it does require special attention to those hit hardest. What was supposed to be a great equalizer, turned out to be just temporary damage for some families and absolute devastation for those already navigating scarcity and poverty — barriers to the privilege of recovery. The category 4 storm disproportionately impacted the health and well-being of women on the island — converting the already limited health services into an inaccessible luxury.

In the U.S., I have seen these same disparities in the absence of a tropical cyclone, uninsured women left at the mercy of a system that would rather treat a problem than prevent it. Their geographic location determines the type of care they receive, and oftentimes, women must inconveniently travel to faraway hospitals to address high-risk pregnancies. These mothers too often look like my own, which gives me a special perspective and motivation to patiently provide clarity in every minute of interaction with my patients, regardless of their motherland or tongue.

Calzada Jorge wanted to complete her residency at an academic institution that values equity and inclusion and provides comprehensive, high-quality reproductive care to everyone in their community.

“My experience at Emory, especially the privilege of working at Grady, has defined my future career,” she says. “Being face-to-face with the barriers to care, creatively bypassing obstacles set forth by the very system we work for and going above and beyond for patients taught me how to advocate for my people and inspired me to advocate for my patients' needs beyond the hospital. I will take these experiences with me and try to make wherever I land a little bit better for our patients.”

On Match Day, she learned she matched for a residency at Emory in obstetrics and gynecology. 

Educating others and tackling health disparities

During Calzada Jorge’s time at Emory, the School of Medicine (SOM) reinstated its chapter of the Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA). At the time, the class had the largest cohort of underrepresented medical students, and LMSA and the  Office of Medical Education and Student Affairs increased Latinx representation in future classes and provided support to those already enrolled.

Calzada Jorge organized activities that reflected the association’s mission of tackling health disparities within the Latinx community. As part of the Medical Spanish Interest Group and clinic coordinator for Portal de Salud (a free clinic for Spanish-speaking patients), she translated complete patient histories and led workshops on taking patient histories in Spanish.

She also served as co-president of Familias Saludables, coordinating, scheduling, designing and teaching weekly classes to families on healthy lifestyle modifications.

“My favorite memories are seeing my colleagues get out of their comfort zone and try to give the classes in Spanish with me only jumping in on critical parts,” she says. “Supporting them was very meaningful as I know they will be fantastic physicians in the future and will be able to counsel their Spanish-speaking patients appropriately.”

“My wonderful patients at Grady taught me more than I ever could imagine, and I became a certified Spanish interpreter to be an active advocate for my patients in that setting,” she adds. “From being invited to ‘la barbacoa’ to a deep hug for keeping their family in the loop, it shows that, no matter what, our patients deserve the best.”

In 2020, Calzada Jorge won the SOM Office of Multicultural Affairs’ Engage, Mentor, Prepare, Advocate for, Cultivate and Teach (EMPACT) Outstanding Peer Mentor Award.

“I mentored students from classes below me and provided the mentorship and advice that I wish someone would’ve given me when I was in their shoes. This journey takes a village, and sometimes it needs to be created by us,” Calzada Jorge says.  

She also was elected to serve as the president of Alpha Omega Alpha, a professional honors medical society that recognizes and advocates for excellence in scholarship and the highest ideals in the medical profession.

Never will forget . . .

“My classmates and now lifelong friends made my time at Emory memorable. From stressing out about anatomy, to dance breaks in the middle of the classroom, midnight trips to Dunkin' Donuts after a long day of studying, crying after a bad outcome and laughing until our bellies hurt because of a nerdy pun — these are the memories I take with me from medical school.”

“Some of the hardest moments in my life happened while here,” she adds. “Life does not stop because you're a student, but the support I received from the administration and my classmates made the road less arduous. And for that I will be forever grateful.”

Calzada Jorge also reflects on attending medical school during a pandemic.

“Experiencing the second half of our medical education during a pandemic was governed mostly by uncertainty,” she says. “Our clinical education was impacted the most; however, I think the school made sure to give us the best clinical experience possible while considering the unknown.”

Reserving her deepest thanks for her peers, Calzada Jorge continues: “My classmates were incredible during this time, and I'm so happy that we get to celebrate all our hard work together (and in person!) this year. They are truly wonderful people and will make fantastic physicians wherever they go. So proud of you, Class of 2022, we did it!”

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