Focused, tuned in, dialed in, plugged in — however you describe heightened concentration, one thing is clear: Without it as a student at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV, comprehending all the required material becomes practically impossible.
But for Genesis Krisel Leon, who just finished her first year of medical school, a challenging academic medicine environment was just what she needed.
She thrived. Intense with a smile, her educational foundation continued to expand after earlier valedictorian honors at Centennial High and a magna cum laude designation as an undergraduate at UNLV (’19 BS Biology). In October and November 2020, she was, to borrow a term from the world of athletics, “in the zone.”
But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit home, sickening her parents, with whom she lives and making concentration more difficult. Crippling lethargy, coughing, and shortness of breath first brought her father down. Mom followed. “I’ve never seen my dad so sick,” Leon said. “He had extreme fatigue. Just stayed in bed. He’s never like that. But there he was, in bed, coughing. Mom, too.”
The daughter of Mexican immigrants would go from studying the neurology block of the medical school curriculum to making food and leaving it outside her parents’ bedroom. “I couldn’t see them but I could talk through the door. I was in charge of the rest of the house. My dad lost his sense of smell. My mom lost her sense of taste. They had some shortness of breath. They weren’t eating or hydrating. I was worried. I was trying to stay calm, make sure they got the health care they needed.”
With an older sister and brother no longer living at home, Leon was a key caretaking presence for her parents. Her virtual studies often would allow her to study at home so she could still take care of mom and dad. She worried on trips to the emergency room and doctors whether her loved ones would be admitted to the hospital, put on ventilators, and she’d never see them again.
“You couldn’t help thinking about that with the way it was all over TV,” she said, noting that her Catholic faith helped her handle the emotional turmoil.
Following CDC's lead
Leon believes following CDC guidelines, especially masking, social distancing, and cleaning of the house, kept her from also coming down with the coronavirus. “When I didn’t get it after the first two weeks and I was following all the guidelines — I made sure to even frequently clean the doorknobs — I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get it,” she said.
After about a month, Leon said her parents began to feel much better. She believes her newfound ability to compartmentalize — keep her worry at bay so she could study — helped her deal with the emotional stress the virus brought to her family home. Today, her parents aren’t quite as energetic as they were prior to being hit by the virus. “But everything is getting better,” said Leon.
Leon started off her academic life with a challenge.
Spanish was her first language at home, but during her early years in school, she became comfortable with the English language. “My parents always stressed the importance of education to me and my siblings. They told me that having an education was integral to developing my skill set as a person and professional. Luckily, school was something I really enjoyed and excelled at since I was a child. The feeling of understanding something new is something that I have always valued.”
Leon credits an anatomy elective in the senior year of high school for developing her love for medicine. “My teacher was a retired veterinarian who was passionate about educating us on the human body and physiology. He made a complicated topic become fun and enjoyable for me. I admired his enthusiasm for the topic and appreciated the challenge that the class presented. I developed a love for the human body and its processes. With that initial spark, I then cared more about dissecting my dad’s own journey in medicine.”
Leon’s father had been a doctor in Mexico but immigrated to America in the late 1980s with his wife and two oldest children because he couldn’t make enough money at home to support his family. “In Mexico, if you weren’t affiliated with a hospital taking care of well-to-do patients, it wasn’t easy to live as a doctor. My father helped the common man...My father says he has no regrets about the decision he made to come to the U.S. He just wanted his children to be able to do whatever they wanted to do in life. There was no pressure on me to go into medicine. He just wanted me to be happy.”’
Once in America, her father’s difficulty with English made it impossible for him to be licensed to continue as an anesthesiologist, so he started his own landscaping firm.
As a child
As a 10-year-old she began serving as an interpreter for her parents at the doctor and places such as the DMV and grocery stores, where a lack of understanding of the English language could result in bureaucratic violations, monetary misunderstandings, or even a questionable diagnosis. “I didn’t realize until I was older how involved I was in interpreting things for the family when I was so young.”
Growing up, Leon and her family didn’t have health insurance. “Fortunately, we were all pretty healthy. If we went to the doctor, we saved up the money to pay in cash. We would get looks because we didn’t have insurance. I know now if we had a real medical emergency, it would have ruined the family.”
It wasn’t until she began her journey toward medicine that Leon started to understand the significance of being a “cash patient.” Volunteering at Volunteers in Medicine of Southern Nevada (often as an interpreter) as a UNLV undergraduate, she saw she was not alone in lacking health care access. “Today I truly understand the drastic effect a lack of health insurance may have on those suffering from chronic illnesses and the strain it places on families.”
Named from the first book of the Bible, Leon says her parents really loved that Genesis stands for “creation” and the “beginning of life.” Leon recalled that after she was accepted to medical school, her father offered to sell the family house to help pay for her studies. “I was fortunate to be awarded a full-tuition (Engelstad Foundation) scholarship that would relieve the stress of having high medical student debt. I’ll never forget that. It will help give me the opportunity to work with the underserved.”
While she’s not sure what her medical specialty will be, Leon has long thought about what makes a good physician. In addition to clinical expertise, she says “a good physician is a person who has a strong sense of empathy, is a patient listener, and culturally competent,” the kind of physician who takes the time to truly get a sense of the patient. If an interpreter must be used, she said the physician doesn’t talk to the interpreter instead of the patient. “A really good doctor makes an effort to connect with the patient,” she said.
Leon, who enjoys mentoring students interested in medicine, is optimistic about her future.
“While I understand that one Latina from Las Vegas may not be able to change the world, I believe that as a physician, I will be able to positively impact the individual world of all patients and their families. My personal experiences growing up as a Mexican American have shed light on the obstacles that many minorities in the U.S. overcome daily. I strive to use my compassion to support these families and provide the underserved with quality health care — health care in which they can trust and feel comfort. Eventually, I wish to bring my passion for mentorship to practice by shaping physicians’ understanding of medicine and patient care.”