Celebrating a family tradition: a recent medical school graduation

Last week, my niece, Maria Piedad Villadiego Carrascal, the only child of my sister, Maria A., graduated from medical school. In doing so, she became the seventh member of the Carrascal family to embrace medicine as a profession. It was an emotional moment. I could not hold back tears as I watched the event, which was streamed live.

By chance, the week before graduation, she and her cousin, my nephew Mauricio, who will be finishing his Pediatrics residency next month, visited Santo Domingo and Samana in the Dominican Republic (DR). They arrived in Santo Domingo exactly 71 years and 10 days after my uncle Jose Daniel stepped on Dominican soil to study medicine at the Universidad Autonoma de Santo Domingo. The origins of our family’s passion for medicine started there, in Santo Domingo.

My uncle was the younger of two children. In the late 1940s, in a small town in Caribbean Colombia, my father decided to drop out of high school to help his parents and his younger brother. Before his death in January, at the age of 98, my dad shared with me that since his adolescent years he had suffered from generalized psoriasis and, as a young person, he wanted to work to help his parents and contribute to the education of his younger brother. Jose Daniel was able to finish high school in December of 1951, in Cartagena, Colombia, becoming the first member of the family graduating from high school. During those years, traveling from my hometown to Cartagena required 12-24 hours over unpaved roads or taking a small boat in a nearby coastal town.

Back home, during the early months of 1952, my uncle kept dreaming of going to medical school, either in Cartagena or in a more distant, large Colombian city. The Carrascal family could not afford those dreams. I was born in April of that year, and around that time, a close friend of my uncle read in a newspaper that the government of the Dominican Republic was offering scholarships to Colombians who had finished high school and wanted to pursue college education in that country. This was one of those gestures that the megalomaniac dictator, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, made from time to time to appear magnanimous and benevolent. For example, in 1938 he offered to receive 100,000 German and Austrian Jewish refugees searching for a safe haven from Nazi persecution. It is argued that one of the reasons behind his decision was to increase the white population of the Dominican Republic since in 1937, he had ordered the execution of more than 20,000 Haitians.

Jose Daniel wrote to the Dominican government requesting a scholarship, and a few weeks later, he received a letter from Trujillo with the news of the award and instructions on how to travel and settle in the DR. He arrived in Santo Domingo, which at the time was called Ciudad Trujillo, on July 6, 1952, and soon started medical school. He completed medical school and graduated as a physician in 1958. Soon afterwards he traveled to Puerto Rico, where he became a surgeon and later married another physician.

Meanwhile, my four brothers, my sister, and I were encouraged by our father (the importance of education was the main value my father instilled in us) and inspired by our physician uncle, the first MD in the family, devoted ourselves to finish high school and pursue professional degrees. Three of us became physicians, and my sister became a medical technologist. One of my uncle’s two daughters in Puerto Rico also became a physician. And now we have Maria Piedad and Mauricio. Seven physicians in the family.

Since the Trujillo dictatorship was one of the bloodiest and most corrupt regimes in Latin America, I struggled with these questions… Was my life, and that of my family, influenced by one of the worst dictators in Latin America’s history? If my uncle had not responded to that item in the paper and requested a scholarship, would he have become a doctor by other means? Would there be seven physicians in my family?

On the left, on Oct. 10, 1953, my uncle Jose Daniel (light suit) and his classmate, Lazaro, pose for a picture in front of the Trujillo Obelisk. On the right, almost 70 years later, on July 20, 2023, Maria Piedad and Mauricio pose for a picture at the same spot, with the obelisk now dedicated to the memory of the Mirabal Sisters, who were assassinated by Trujillo’s regime in 1960.

Alvaro Carrascal is an epidemiologist.

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