From humble beginnings to great endings, how this HSC TCOM graduate defied all odds

Thursday, May 9, 2024

HSC's Diana Garcia Garcia dressed for graduationLamont, California, a simple location referred to only as a census-designated place in Kern County in the south-central portion of the state, is where Diana Garcia Garcia grew up with her family, watching them work each day in the lush orange and grape fields. She visited them during lunch hours and saw the hard work that her parents did in those fields, and it inspired in her a dream of becoming a doctor. In two weeks that dream will be fulfilled as she will graduate from The University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth’s Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine.

“I think it’s slowly starting to sink in,” she said. “I reflect and to think that I’m going to walk the stage and work in this profession is a dream come true.”

Her journey to becoming an osteopathic physician is one of inspiration, perseverance and determination. Garcia Garcia is a first-generation American and is the first in her family to earn a high school diploma, a college degree and now a medical school degree. Her family left California for Midland, Texas while she was in the eighth grade.

It was in the spring of 2016, during her senior year at Lee High School (now Legacy) that the Primary Care Pathway program began. The program is a unique partnership between Midland College, Midland Health, the University of North Texas in Denton and TCOM.

Students who enter the program must go through a rigorous curriculum at Midland College for two years before attending UNT in Denton for a year. Students who complete those three years then gain admittance into TCOM without needing an MCAT score. Garcia Garcia saw this as the opportunity she had been waiting for.

“I was planning on doing my associate degree at Midland College, then a nursing degree before medical school,” Garcia Garcia said. “I found out about the program while registering for classes at Midland College. A counselor there told me about it, how the program works, and it was a really great opportunity for me, but also my family because it would lessen the financial burden.”

Garcia Garcia became part of the very first cohort of students in the PCPP in the fall of 2016. During her first two years at Midland College, she thrived, but things were about to get difficult as she left her home and headed to UNT in Denton.

“For me, the transition to UNT was the hardest part because it was the first time being away from home,” Garcia Garcia said. “I’m very family-oriented, so not being there to come home and see my family was very difficult.”

She was successful at UNT and arrived at TCOM in the summer of 2019 ready to start medical school. But was she ready? Garcia Garcia had just turned 21 when she began medical school and compared to her peers, she was still growing emotionally. Imposter Syndrome struck Garcia Garcia.

“I had to fight that really hard,” she said. “It felt like I wasn’t meant to be here, it really hit harder than I thought it would.”

Most medical students will tell you that the first year of medical school is typically one of the most difficult. Learning material at an accelerated pace, figuring out the right studying methods, and trying to keep up is one of the biggest challenges, and it became overwhelming for Garcia Garcia. She was going to have to repeat her first year of medical school.

“My first year, trying to maintain classes, battle imposter syndrome, and things at home were happening, it just became very hard,” she said. “I was able to go back home, refocus, and continue on the path of becoming a physician. I wasn’t going to let this stop me, I did a lot of reflecting and growth during that time to see if this is really the path I wanted to take.”

The answer was yes, but another brewing storm was about to hit, COVID-19. As Garcia Garcia restarted her medical school career in the summer of 2020, things were as chaotic as possible for everyone. Classes shifted to virtual and everyone had to adjust to the new reality. In just one year though, Garcia Garcia had grown so much, that she was now finding success, while also leaning on her peers for support.

“My classmates were really great, even through the hardships and struggling with the materials, my peers always were there for me,” she said.

One of those classmates was Dr. Sijay Abongwa, a class of 2023 graduate and current anesthesiology resident at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. He would take time out of his day to help tutor Garcia Garcia and remind her that she’s really meant to be here.

“Imposter syndrome doesn’t pick and choose who it affects, it affects the best of us and like many out there, Diana was no different,” Abongwa said. “It was something she dealt with in the earlier years of med school, but she tackled it with determination and resilience.”

To help support Garcia Garcia in those difficult times, Abongwa would have study sessions with her where they focused on celebrating her accomplishments, highlighting her strengths, and reminding her that she did indeed belong right where she was.

Garcia Garcia began to volunteer with the Texas Rural Health Association and took part in many of the medical mission trips that TCOM’s Office of Rural Medical Education does each year to the Texas/Mexico border. She helped provide physical exams and other medical services to those rural populations but also served as a translator for Spanish-speaking patients. She was able to do her third-year rotations back home in Midland and be reunited with her family.

Along with the support of Abongwa, perhaps no one could relate better with Garcia Garcia than Dr. Clarence Sparks. The first PCPP graduate in 2023, Sparks was with Garcia Garcia from the beginning at Midland College in 2016. The pair were part of the initial cohort of students to join the PCPP and they supported each other throughout the ups and downs of medical school.

Sparks, who is finishing up his first year as an internal medicine resident at Loma Linda Health in California, recalled a lot of the support they gave each other, the advice on rotations and how to navigate the match process itself, which Sparks made sure to find time to watch as the Match Day results were revealed in March.

“Even though I was working, I was watching the Match Day event and then she called me about her results and I was so happy for her,” Sparks said.

HSC's Diana Garcia Garcia on Match DayMatch Day, the moment medical school students live for was on March 15. Garcia Garcia, surrounded by her family, opened her envelope to see that she matched into family medicine at HealthONE in Aurora, Colorado, her top choice.

“I absolutely loved the program director and the interviewers they really represented the family in family medicine,”she said.“The program also could lead me towards a fellowship in obstetrics, so I’m really excited.”

Garcia Garcia will be the second graduate of the PCPP program, despite at times it seemed she might never see this day. She is quick to credit her classmates and friends for helping her through medical school and the growth she experienced from that first day in 2019 until now is one she will never forget.

Diana Garcia Garcia as a young girl“It’s something I still can’t believe,” said Garcia Garcia. “You’re going to have ups and downs, and it’s not an easy journey. I had to keep reminding myself of the ultimate goal.”

“I’m absolutely thrilled to see Diana reach this milestone and graduate,” Abongwa said. “She’s worked incredibly hard, and witnessing her success fills me with pride and excitement for her future. I know she will be a great physician. I’m so happy to see what the future holds for Dr. Garcia.”

Sparks is planning to be at graduation to celebrate Garcia Garcia and the journey they both started in 2016.

Garcia Garcia’s plans following residency aren’t set, but she wants to go somewhere rural in Texas to practice, possibly Andrews or Perryton which she considers almost like a second home. Regardless of what the future holds, the past has shaped her into a role model of success for those in her hometown considering a career in medicine, and how far anyone can go in this world.

“Looking back, I was the little girl who was surrounded by fields of fruit and vegetables,” she said. “I could not have known that would be me today, graduating medical school.”

From HSC Newsroom - Our People by Steven Bartolotta