With any meaningful graduation, what happened on the way to a hard-earned achievement means a trip down memory lane. For Monica Celine Fortich, who graduates this week from the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV, it will include remembering how, after immigrating to Las Vegas with her family at the age of 10, she sat in a Clark County School District classroom and wondered how she would ever communicate well enough in English to thrive in school.
“It was frightening not to know what the teacher and students were talking about in class,” says the native of the Philippines whose native language is Tagalog. “I did a lot of nodding like I understood. Going to a school in one language and then to one in another language was so difficult. I still don’t really know how a 10-year-old was able to navigate the change and do well.”
How she became fluent enough in English to quickly excel in it becomes even more remarkable when you consider she did so without the benefit of English as a Second Language assistance.
In the end, she says, what made it possible for her to pick up the language was a combination of nice people willing to talk with someone trying to learn English coupled with her reading – with a dictionary by her side – anything she could get her hands on. It didn’t matter whether it was encyclopedias, newspapers, school books, or fiction. Watching TV programs also helped her facility with the language.
“I read as much as I could to improve,” says the now 24-year-old whose understanding of English from a Filipino English class as a child was so basic when she arrived in the U.S. 14 years ago that a question asking about her TV watching habits might result in her remarking on the weather. “It seemed like everyone was talking too fast to understand.”
She improved enough in English to help her graduate with honors from Woodbury Middle School, Coronado High School, and UNLV prior to medical school, where she’s been described by Ann Diggins, assistant dean for student affairs and career services, as a “great student and a good leader.”
“When I look back on my time in Las Vegas, it seems like it has been both a short time and a long time,” Fortich says. “Fourteen years isn’t all that long but it can feel like a long time when you feel like you’re struggling with the language.”
Fortich – her father is a respiratory therapist and her mother a nurse – says science and medicine always fascinated her. “I wanted to know the ‘why’ about things. I always read science and medical encyclopedias to find things out.” Her interest in medicine was only heightened at the age of nine when her then 7-year-old younger brother suffered from unexplained fevers and rashes that would come and go.
“Growing up in the Philippines, I witnessed and experienced a health care system which suffered from a lack of funding and support. My parents had to take my brother to the opposite side of the country to simply be evaluated and diagnosed. It was frustrating and heartbreaking to witness my brother's lack of improvement while my parents continued to struggle to find answers and treatment for his health problems.
"Although my brother never received a clear diagnosis, thankfully, he is now living a normal life. At such an early age, I realized how people’s health was consistently at risk because they did not have the resources and access to receive proper, high-quality healthcare.”
The experience was a factor in her parents’ decision to immigrate to the U.S. While she says there is no question that American medical care can be superb, she says from the vantage point of a medical student in Las Vegas, she has also found it true that access to medical care in the U.S. isn't always what it should be, that financial means can be the difference between life and death.
“One experience I remember during my clinicals is a patient who had an unknown malignant endocrine disorder. Due to the lack of resources we had in the hospital, we had to give the patient only two choices – to be transferred out of state for further evaluation or to hospice in the city. Our patient, who had a difficult financial situation, chose to go to hospice to use their remaining time to spend with family. Truthfully, even if we had the resources in our state, we were not sure if she would have received a different prognosis. However, it was disheartening that we, as her medical team, had only those options for her. As a medical student, I realized how many people like our patient must face that cruel reality every day.”
Fortich has chosen to specialize in internal medicine. On Match Day, when medical students learn where they will do their residencies, or graduate medical education, Fortich found she will attend the University of California, San Diego for her training. While she looks forward to the experience, Fortich says that once her training is done, she’ll return to Las Vegas. “This is my home, where my family is.”
What attracted Fortich to internal medicine, she says, was the diversity, variety, and flexibility the field contains. “Internal medicine will give me the ability to collaborate with all types of specialty physicians and other healthcare professionals to ensure that my patients receive comprehensive and well-rounded health care.”
She will always keep access to care in mind. “The little things, like how close a drug store is to a patient to pick up a prescription, can make a big difference. I will get to know my patients.”
During medical school, Fortich was a key figure in a dozen student groups, including the Muslim Student Association, Family Medicine Interest Group, and Internal Medicine Interest Group. “I wanted to be a part of establishing our school’s culture. My leadership experience has helped me develop the ability to foster effective communication and professionalism between my peers.”
Fortich says that when she embarks on her career, either as a primary care physician or hospitalist, she hopes to have the same kind of relationship with patients as Misti Song, MD, an assistant professor at the medical school and primary care physician.
“She’s the most patient and kindest person I’ve ever met. Every one of her patients is thankful they have her as their doctor. I want to have the same effect on my patients.”