Ariz. doctor reaches out to Hispanic patients

YUMA, Ariz. (AP) — When she was growing up in San Luis, Ariz., Dr. Mariana Amaya's parents crossed the border into Mexico when someone in the family needed to see a doctor.

At the time, it was the most practical option since her parents spoke only Spanish.

This language barrier made an impression with Amaya. Even as a little girl she knew she wanted help the Spanish-speaking community when she grew up.

"I knew being bilingual I could reach the population that didn't speak English."

In junior high she decided she would become a doctor, but she didn't know if that was possible. She didn't know anybody like her — a Hispanic female — who was a doctor. The closest was an aunt, a nurse.

She is now doing exactly what that little girl growing up in San Luis wanted to do. At 36, Amaya has a private medical practice in obstetrics and gynecology in Phoenix.

She works primarily with Hispanic women and would surely have made little Mariana proud. But getting there took determination and hard work.

Amaya was born in Yuma to Rosa M. and Jorge Amaya, who were fieldworkers. "I'm lucky to have them as parents. They never got the education we got."

She has three younger siblings, sister Gina and brothers David and George Amaya. All four of the Amaya children went to college. Her sister became a nurse, David went to college on a basketball scholarship and George graduated from the University of Arizona and now works with Yuma County.

She has "a lot of good memories" of growing up in San Luis. She went to Gadsden Elementary and graduated from Kofa High School in 1993.

She did well in high school. Becoming a doctor seemed a good fit because she gravitated toward biology. "I wanted to know how things work."

But a stint at a summer camp sealed her choice. She attended a University of Arizona Med-Start camp, which exposed her to different areas of medicine.

She also met other people with similar backgrounds and she thought "maybe it is possible."

Her teachers encouraged her to follow her dream, and her parents were very supportive.

She applied to several medical schools, including Stanford University, and was pretty much accepted by all. However, the University of Arizona offered her a full scholarship and that pretty much decided it for her.

But Amaya was "shocked" to discover her class was not very diverse. "There were very few Hispanics."

In medical school, she rotated through all the medical fields and chose women's health. "I enjoy working with women. It's generally a happy field, helping women understand the female body."

Her chosen field allows her to break down another barrier. "Hispanics basically never talk about (the female body). It's taboo in our culture."

After graduating from medical school, Amaya completed a four-year residency in two Phoenix hospitals: Maricopa Medical Center and St. Joseph's Hospital.

After her residency she decided to stay in Arizona and took a job at St. Joseph's.

"I didn't want to leave the state. I saw myself living here because of family. I didn't want to be far away from my family," most of which still lives in San Luis.

Amaya opened a private practice in 2006. "It's great. We help a pretty diverse population, and we have many Hispanics. It's fun to use my Spanish all the time. Patients love that I can communicate with them. Young girls will speak English and their moms will ask questions in Spanish.

"I love what I do. It's a privilege to be part of what's a private situation, delivering a baby."

But life as a physician has its challenges. "It's a struggle to balance being a parent and being married with the demands of the career."

Amaya met her husband, Martin J. Hernandez, 40 and originally from California, at the UA. She was working on her bachelor's degree and he was finishing up his master's degree in public health. He also has his own practice in family medicine.

They married her second year of medical school and are raising three children: Lucas, 7, Noah, 4, and Eva, 6 months.

"The hours are crazy with delivering babies. Babies come when they want to come. But the kids are used to hearing the beeper go off. They know it means I have to go to the hospital," Amaya said.

She is happy to be married to a fellow doctor. "He understands the crazy schedule. It works well. We understand each other. I think it would be harder if we weren't married to another doctor."

While she notes that most people work "9 to 5" and then they're done, "I'm always on. Patients call after hours. You're a physician 24/7."

Nevertheless, she encourages Hispanic kids, especially girls, to consider the career.

"You don't have to be 'super-smart.' People think that to be a doctor you have to be super-smart, but you have to be more determined and a hard worker more than smart."

Sometimes young girls will tell her, "My parents can't afford college." Her advice? "If you want to be determined, set a goal, prepare yourself, learn to ask questions and get advice from the right people. Don't be afraid to ask questions."

She urges young people to do well in school and take responsibility for what they want to do.

But she also wants them to understand that a lot of sacrifice is involved.

"It's not easy to reach goals. It takes a while, but when you're done, it's worthwhile," she said, pointing out that it took her 12 years after high school to reach her goal of becoming a doctor.

"It seems like a long time, but it's going to get you to your goal. And don't forget, you still have summers off."

She hopes young readers will consider her advice.

"I just wish more Hispanic kids in Yuma County would venture out and pursue higher education."


Information from: The Sun, http://www.yumasun.com

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