Nelson Antonio Reyes
"SHPEP gave me the exposure I needed to become a well-diverse premedical student."
Mr. Reyes participated in SHPEP at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey in 2020. He graduated from the Honors College at Rutgers University Newark with a BA in Neurobiology and a minor in Chemistry. Currently, Mr. Reyes is a field support volunteer for the Hospice of New Jersey and crisis counselor for a national crisis suicide prevention text line.
Nelson Antonio Reyes
Nelson Antonio Reyes was born on August 7, 1986, in the Dominican Republic. He immigrated to the United States of America at the age of eleven and was raised by a single parent. Mr. Reyes is currently a dreamer (DACA). He graduated from the Honors College at Rutgers University Newark with a Bachelor of Arts in Neurobiology and minors in Chemistry, Cognitive Neuroscience, and Honors. He is a hospice field support volunteer for the Hospice of New Jersey and a crisis counselor for a national crisis suicide prevention text line.
What path did you take when you first started college?
I started as a Neurobiology Major. I knew right away I wanted to pursue medicine.
What led to your interest in a health profession?
The origin of my desire to become a physician started when facing my mortality with a life-threatening illness. Being diagnosed with a condition that at the time was thought to be terminal offered me the opportunity to be taken to the threshold of life, from where I saw that my life could potentially end. From this vantage point, I was forced to think about the value of life in new ways. I began to reflect upon forces larger than myself to bring proportionality to the incredible adversity I faced—cosmic rightsizing. In my quest for survival and self-discovery, being a doctor appealed to me because of my direct exposure to medicine’s profound positive impact on human beings. I am alive today because of the devotion and dedication of my fantastic physician, who managed and directed my plan of care along with their medical team. I hope I will have the honor and privilege to do the same for others someday.
Who are what inspired you?
After so much adversity, spirituality became a framework through which I saw life. I stumbled upon Buddhism and began to narrow the suffering gap in a contemplative Buddhist way. I stopped wishing for the world I did not have and chose to shift my focus away from my suffering and started engaging in acts of service such as working with people in crises.
I began to define suffering as a wedge, a gap between the life I wanted and the life I was experiencing. I started engaging in hospice work. I learned right away how important it is for physicians to care beyond the cure. I found great value in seeing the critical role physicians play in that they are responsible for determining the following steps: the diagnosis and the treatment plan. Hospice quickly taught me a powerful lesson for someone who couldn’t change what they saw. Perspective is a type of alchemy humans get to play with, turning anguish into a flower. Through this service, I started narrowing the suffering gap. Later in college, I reaffirmed my affinity for education and re-ignited my curiosity for medicine as a vocation that requires one to be a lifelong learner. In particular, I found the subjects of physiology and neurobiology fascinating. They gave me an exhilarating introduction to the vast ever-changing body of medical knowledge. In a way, it was also surprisingly rewarding because those courses gave me an understanding of how my body works, which I learned could be applied to diagnosing and treating specific diseases.
What obstacles did you overcome in your educational or career journey?
My family emigrated from the Dominican Republic when I was young. Growing up as an immigrant in a homogenous environment presented challenges, including the language barrier, food insecurity, and homelessness. As an adult Latino male, I also faced many challenges in accessing medical care. Structural and socioeconomic barriers prolonged my medical treatment, resulting in an illness diagnosis, from which I am now in remission.
I awoke one morning feeling an odd tingling in my upper back. The sensation intensified until it became painful. The next day, my back felt like it was on fire and was covered with what looked like horribly inflamed pimples. I was scared. I had no idea what it could be and had no primary-care doctor, health insurance, or money. I hoped and prayed to get better, but I kept getting worse. I was losing weight; my lymph nodes were swollen and painful to the touch. I’d wake at night drenched in sweat. I was short of breath, tired, and weak. These symptoms persisted, and I felt more and more helpless. I remember realizing one day that whatever was happening in my body would lead to death if I did not get the medical treatment I needed. I discovered a hospital that offered a charity care program in the area. I utilized this resource and was able to have access to the care I so desperately needed. I found myself sitting in a chair, undocumented, at risk of homelessness, with no savings, and hearing what was thought to be a terminal diagnosis at the time. The first thing I did when I got home from that medical visit was enrolled at Rutgers University. I started my treatment and my undergraduate education at the same time. These individuals helped me regain my optimum health by providing compassionate, holistic care.
I firmly believe, “Out of nowhere, out of no way, a way will be made.” These challenges gave me the opportunity for new thinking and growth. I did research and was able to allocate different resources such as financial aid for dreamers and treatment options for the uninsured. I made many visits to various offices to gather the necessary paperwork, successfully received funding to begin my undergraduate education, and received charity care covering the costs of my treatment. Initially, I could only afford to be in school two days a week, so I packed up to 6 lectures back-to-back for those days. At the same time, the other days were to attend my treatments. I utilized public transportation to and from the hospital, school, and to my extracurricular activities. It was an extremely challenging time, but I found it extremely helpful to be organized and plan things ahead of time. I learned the importance of patience and remaining calm during a crisis. I saw value in being self-disciplined. It was a time when I learned to manage my emotions while devoting myself to my studies, all while trusting with confidence in my ability to get through the situation. I expanded my well-being by knowing now more than ever that it was vital for me to go to the gym and practice yoga. Most importantly, hope became the framework I used to navigate the world. Hope allowed me to come up with solutions to problems I’ve faced instead of just seeing the problem and being overwhelmed by it. Hope enabled me to see a better future and made these challenging situations more bearable. The situation taught me that I am more resilient than I ever imagined.
These challenges illuminated first-hand how social determinants of health and cultural barriers cause unique difficulties for disadvantaged patients due to immigration policies or other socioeconomic factors. I have gained valuable insight into the structural barriers and policies that block access to care while concurrently giving me practical knowledge with which I will be better equipped to help others in similar situations. These diverse experiences taught me the value of being an instigator of change. I want to work with populations that society has neglected and continue bridging the healthcare access gap. SHPEP embodies these sentiments in addressing health disparities. The community’s needs represent a cultural microcosm of the world and will allow me to learn how to work towards my future goal of increasing access to care for impoverished populations. I gained valuable lessons such as the importance of embracing all patients, especially those who do not benefit from traditional societal systems. I aim to treat every patient I encounter with the utmost respect and compassion, recognize their discomfort, and hold their hand through their vulnerable health situation. SHPEP was the ideal place to understand how to do so and become the type of physician I would like to be.
What are your recent milestones?
Recent milestones have been being able to submit a primary application to MD programs. With all the challenges and setbacks I have faced that was in itself one of the greatest achievements of my life.
What makes your story unique?
All the adversity I have faced in my life and the miracles that allowed me to overcome them.
How did SHPEP influence you?
SHPEP gave me the exposure I needed to become a well-diverse premedical student.
What has been your favorite part of the process? The most difficult?
Medicine itself because it is a field with so many kind people. Everything has been challenging but it has helped me become more resilient.
Did you have experiences or mentors that prepared you for a career as a health professional?
Yes. I had the privilege of being guided by some of the most altruistic and kind human beings I have ever met. Mentors are angels on earth. I attribute my successes to Dr. Steven Libutti, Dr. Kevin Hewitt, Dr. David Negron, Professors, Dr. Heintzelman, Miguel – Cervantes – Cervantes.
What is the best career advice you have received?
To trust the process and have faith.
What advice do you have for students pursuing a health professional career?
Enjoy the process, self-reflect often, and do things that you are genuinely interested in. Do not simply do them to check a box but take this as an opportunity to truly figure out what your passions and interests are. Medicine is an incredibly diverse field with many different subsets of specialties so follow and do the things that bring you joy.