At first blush, Dr. Mayra Alejandra Jones-Betancourt, a UNLV Medicine pediatrician, doesn’t appear to have had the kind of background associated with a career in medicine.
A California native, she grew up in a single-parent family. Her mother, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who spoke only Spanish (she has since become a citizen), worked cleaning houses, in factories, and in the fields to support her four children. The he family lived in a small two-bedroom apartment in San Diego County.
But harsh realities, which frequently result in individuals settling for a life far beneath what they could have lived, instead became Jones-Betancourt’s catalyst for change.
“Growing up and seeing my mother work so hard definitely motivated me to pursue higher education,” said Jones-Betancourt, who became an assistant professor with the UNLV School of Medicine department of pediatrics in September 2019. “My mother believed in the American Dream for her children. She told us you can be whatever you want to be, doors would open for you, if you worked hard enough in America. That was her mantra.”
Armed with a belief in that mantra and with a good head on her shoulders — a second-grade teacher told the doctor’s mother that she thought her daughter was a gifted student — the child read everything she could get her hands on.
“I did really well in math and science early on,” said Jones-Betancourt, who worked after school and on weekends as soon as she was old enough. “I realized early on, education could make a big difference.”
In school, she frequently served as an interpreter for her mother. By the age of 12, she knew she wanted to be a doctor.
“My experiences being an interpreter for my mother in all facets of life, including medical appointments, was very eye-opening. I discovered that not many physicians were women or looked like me or my family and (they) did not speak our language. Often, I felt that medical professionals did not understand my family and did not understand the barriers we faced to medical treatments,” she said. “As a child, I thought that if I was a doctor, I could help families that were like mine and that I would understand them.”
A lack of solid doctor-patient communication contributed to her aunt dying at the age of 45 of a stroke, Jones-Betancourt believes. “Negative experiences in medicine played a large role in my going into medicine. I was sure I could do better.”
When she reflects on her journey in higher education and medicine, Jones-Betancourt is grateful for mentors and pipeline programs that introduce high school students to college and college students to medical school. In high school she said she was paired with a college student who told her how to apply for college.
“My mother provided support but since she was unfamiliar with the educational system in the United States, she was not able to help navigate applying to college, preparing for the medical school admission test, or applying to medical school. As a first-generation student, I navigated through various challenges including financial obstacles alone. I didn’t have a computer so I would go to the public library to use the computers there for applications. I am thankful that through pipeline programs and mentorship I was able to achieve my dream.”
Merit-based scholarships helped her get through University of California at Berkeley and UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her pediatrics residency through the University of Southern California in 2018 and worked for a year as a primary care physician in pediatrics at Kaiser Permanente-West Los Angeles before joining the UNLV School of Medicine and its clinical practice, UNLV Medicine.
Reminded of Family
Married to emergency physician Dr. Carlos Jones, with whom she has a 15-month-old daughter, Sofia Jones, Jones-Betancourt specialized in pediatrics because she saw in her medical school rotations how parents want to do well for their children. “This reminded me of my family and my mother. With more research delving into adverse childhood events leading to poor health outcomes into adulthood, I see this as an opportunity to intervene as a primary care physician.”
She says being bilingual — English and Spanish — helps her with patients today. “I decided on the UNLV School of Medicine because I saw an opportunity to work with the diverse patient population. In addition, I wanted to work with a diverse faculty community. As a student, I never saw a Latina physician in academia. I wanted to change that and joining UNLV made that a possibility.”
What has become very common in pediatrics, the doctor said, is discussing vaccination with parents who have become suspicious of vaccines after reading content on the Internet. “My strategy is really to understand where the parents are as far as their questions and fears with vaccines. There is much misinformation posted online. My hope is that perhaps I am able to clear some of the misconceptions that exist with vaccines. My goal is to work together with parents in shared decision making for the well- being of their child.’’
Jones-Betancourt takes seriously her role as the Latino Medical Student Faculty Advisor at the medical school, often working with undergraduate students thinking about medical school.
“I want to be a mentor to students like me, first generation. I want them to know that if they are persistent, they can take advantage of opportunities and make their dreams a reality.”