She watched as her mother frantically tried to stop the bleeding. It soon became obvious that nothing she had on hand would actually close the wound.
“My mother and I transported him to our hometown private community hospital where we waited in the lobby for assistance,” said Flores, who earlier this year finished a fellowship in trauma/acute care surgery through the UNLV School of Medicine. “A nurse dressed head-to-toe in white came out to the lobby and asked us if we had medical insurance. The answer was no. We were told that if we had no insurance, we would get no care in that hospital. We ended up taking him to the county hospital for care, a place much like UMC.”
On that day, Flores said, she decided to somehow “be a part of the solution to this horrible situation — and although I didn’t know it at the time, I believe that is when the trauma surgeon in me was born.”
No one can ever say, however, that her career path was laid out like a blueprint.
She grew up in the Harbor Area of Los Angeles, with Compton and South-Central L.A. nearby, where authorities say all three areas still have far more than their share of gang problems. “The Harbor Area is a rough underbelly rural area of L.A. that requires tough skin to survive, and I was raised to be tough, street-smart, and to never take ‘no’ for an answer,” Flores said. “One of my parents’ many favorite quotes was, ‘Be a leader, not a follower.’”
A first-generation college student and college graduate, Flores was the daughter of a fifth-generation Mexican-American, a concrete contractor who never finished high school — a man Flores can never recall coming home from work “not covered in concrete powder.” Her mother, a second-generation American of Costa Rican descent, worked as a human resources specialist. She deferred hopes of higher education to support her four brothers and sisters, who lost their mother at an early age.
“Although neither of my parents pursued higher education, they highly valued education and basically told me I would either pursue a university/college career or find a way to support myself with a job and move out on my own when I turned 18. Education was just as important in my home as hard work. We were not raised to be slackers and were inspired to be the absolute best at whatever we put our efforts forth to do. This instilled a competitive spirit in my two younger brothers and I that has never faded away. It is with this upbringing that a rebellious kid like me overcame the lures of gang life, drugs, and teenage pregnancy.
“I vividly recall being followed to school by my dad or one of our family friends to make sure I wasn’t tempted to be truant.”
In high school, Flores realized she truly loved biology.
“I was given the opportunity by Mr. Wooden, my high school counselor, to become involved in a rigorous summer biology course with Mrs.Turnbull. Although my inner-city high school could not afford good specimens, I dissected a frog that summer, and my life was changed. I became a scientist that day. My poor lab partner — she didn’t even have a chance at using the forceps or scalpel. Mr. Wooden saw in me a spark that he continued to fuel throughout high school, and he was the first educator to tell me that I could become a physician if I wanted to.”
During her first two years of undergraduate work at UCLA — she worked nights in an import-export business while pursuing her bachelor’s degree in sociology — Flores realized that even the advanced placement and honors courses she took at her high school had not prepared her for the necessity of taking thorough notes so information could be reproduced for examinations. One of her science professors pulled her aside and questioned her goal to become physician. "I thank God every day for the tenacity passed on to me by my parents, in which I would take words such as this as a challenge to prove people wrong.”
The experience with the professor actually strengthened her desire to go to medical school. She said she slowly learned how to study, reversed course at UCLA, and after graduation, sought out a post-baccalaureate health sciences program that would help her achieve her dream. A counselor for the program at California State University, Fullerton initially said she’d never make it to medical school. “I marched directly from this man’s office and told my boyfriend (now husband) that I must complete the post-baccalaureate program. That counselor wrote me a letter of recommendation to medical school after I completed the program.”
While attending the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, she decided to become a trauma surgeon. “We took trauma calls on nights and weekends as med students and in the trauma bay was where my past and future intersected. I saw patients who looked like me and my hometown friends who, like many of my peers growing up, were involved in situations that resulted in their getting shot or stabbed. And more importantly, I watched the trauma and acute care surgeons fix them,” she said. “Then I witnessed the surgical critical care team care for them and ensure they made it back home to their loved ones. I was sold. Surgery provides the satisfaction, often, of near-instant gratification. Often, you have saved lives. You have saved a mother, a father, or a child with your two gloved hands inside of a chest, a neck, or a belly — and that satisfaction is better than anything.”
Flores, who believes a great doctor always treats patients as they would a member of their own family, completed a general surgery residency in Arizona prior to coming to Las Vegas to complete a surgical critical care fellowship and trauma/acute care fellowship through UNLV. She says training under Dr. Douglas Fraser, the acute care surgery fellowship director and chief of UMC Trauma, was her good fortune. “One of the joys of surgical training is having a mentor take you under their wing and provide support as you grow into a surgeon. Dr. Fraser has been that mentor for me.”
While the number of female surgeons is growing, men still far outnumber women in the specialty. Flores said that is largely because many women believe that if you pursue a surgical career, you must do so at the exclusion of having a family. Flores and her husband, a carpenter, have four children, two born before she entered medical school and twin girls born during her general surgery residency.
“I am living proof that the idea you can’t have a family is a fallacy,” she said. “Obviously, you must have a good marriage. I have a good partner with my husband. He is a saint, one of the main reasons I was able to do it. And I honestly think being a mother helped me in medical school and in my later training. Being a mother, you must be good at time management. What I think it comes down to is this: If you really want to be a surgeon, you find a way.”