Denisse Rojas Marquez, MD, MPP, and Jirayut “New” Latthivongskorn, MD, MPH, recall believing that they were not entitled to access to health care as they were growing up. Both came to the United States as children — Rojas Marquez as a baby from Mexico and Latthivongskorn at the age of 9 from Thailand — and have lived most of their lives in the country as undocumented people.
They are also recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which gives people brought to the country as children certain protections without granting citizenship.
“[When I was] growing up, we avoided going to the doctor’s office. We really relied on home remedies,” Latthivongskorn told Darrell Kirch, MD, president emeritus of the AAMC and moderator of the Learn Serve Lead 2021: The Virtual Experience session entitled "2021 Vilcek-Gold Award for Humanism in Healthcare: Breaking More Barriers, Together," on Tuesday, Nov. 9. During the session, Rojas Marquez and Latthivongskorn were presented with the 2021 Vilcek-Gold Award for Humanism in Healthcare in recognition of their work to help other DACA recipients pursue careers in medicine.
“My family and I would often come into the emergency room for something that was preventable and probably could have been addressed in a primary care doctor visit,” Rojas Marquez added.
When their families did seek health care, they faced significant barriers. Latthivongskorn was called on to interpret and help his mother navigate the complex medical system. And Rojas Marquez’s mother was unable to get lifesaving treatment in the United States because she could not access insurance coverage.
“My brother had immigrated to Canada while I was in high school and [my mother] made a really, really tough decision of also immigrating to Canada,” Rojas Marquez said. “No family should ever have to face that decision.”
Motivated by their own experiences, Rojas Marquez and Latthivongskorn decided to become physicians so they could influence change. Rojas Marquez graduated from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and is now an emergency medicine resident at Boston Medical Center. Latthivongskorn graduated from the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine and is a family and community medicine resident at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center.
The two future doctors’ paths crossed when they were both undergraduates at the University of California, Berkeley, where they bonded over their shared experiences and aspirations. As they struggled to navigate the process for applying to medical school, they decided to start an organization to help other DACA recipients pursue education and careers as health professionals. The organization, Pre-Health Dreamers, was born over conversations at Starbucks and by compiling resources into a Google Doc, Latthivongskorn said. It has since grown to more than 1,000 members and allied organizations, advocated for legislation allowing DACA recipients to be eligible for medical licensure, and increased awareness and dialogue about the barriers undocumented immigrants face in pursuing medical education.
“The idea was to find community and find perseverance with each other — a network of mutual support,” Rojas Marquez said.
“It’s getting and bringing this awareness around the country,” Latthivongskorn added. “It’s a collaborative approach that has allowed us to make so much progress.”
Their work to uplift other immigrants in health care earned Rojas Marquez and Latthivongskorn the 2021 Vilcek-Gold Award for Humanism in Healthcare, which was created by the Vilcek Foundation and the Arnold P. Gold Foundation to recognize outstanding immigrant health care professionals whose work has demonstrated a commitment to centering humanism in care. Previous recipients include Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, and Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, MPH, founder and director of the Michigan State University and Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative.
“I could not think of more deserving recipients of this award than New and Denisse,” said Vilcek Foundation CEO and Chairman Jan Vilcek, MD, PhD, who presented the award at the beginning of the session. “We are convinced you will continue to advance the ideals espoused by this award.”