Raised by a single mom who immigrated from Mexico, struggling to make ends meet, Bryan Torres didn’t realize that “people who looked like him” could be doctors. As a teenager, he found himself navigating his mother’s healthcare crisis, serving as interpreter and translator because no one spoke Spanish. He left the experience convinced there had to be a better way.
Fast forward to summer of 2022, and Torres finds himself on the Harvard Medical School campus, as part of our Visiting Research Internship Program (VRIP). His project focused on analyzing hospital data from New Jersey to understand how language concordance–when doctor and patient speak the same language–affects care. The work is part of a broader research effort in the laboratory of his VRIP mentor, Gezzer Ortega, MD, an instructor in surgery at Brigham & Women’s Hospital (BWH), to study how language concordance is linked to disparities in surgical care.
We caught up with Torres just before the closing ceremonies where VRIP interns presented their research in late July.
You grew up in a predominantly Latino community as a first-generation American, raised by a single mom. How has that life experience influenced your career path?
I got to witness many instances of inequities, disparities, and social injustices early on in my life. I started to ask why do these things happen to people like us? Even if it was kind of normal because you saw it so often. As I started to get older, I realized that I didn’t want that for myself or for the people around me. I knew that to “get out and make it” I had to get an education, but our situation didn’t afford that opportunity. So I focused more on my schooling to obtain scholarships for my education. I didn’t know what I wanted to do; I just knew that I wanted to work in a way that involved helping my community.
It wasn’t until my mother got sick that my path became clearer. I found myself acting as interpreter and translator for her because her primary language is not English. She’s the most important person in my life. Having to translate and interpret for her while trying to navigate how she was feeling and how I was feeling was very difficult. I felt very afraid and helpless not being able to help her as much as I wanted to, and by the fact that she couldn’t understand what was going on. More importantly was the alienation that I felt by the fact that nobody around us looked like us, nor did they know Spanish. I felt very alone.
She made a comeback, thankfully, but I left the hospital wondering: Why did this happen? Why wasn’t anybody there for us who could understand us, speak our language, interpret for us? I knew then that I wanted to pursue this question and learn more about how to be a physician. I knew that’s what I wanted and I wasn’t ever going to give up.
“Diversity in medicine to me means having the representation and inclusion of individuals from all walks of life and all life experiences, which can help us better serve the patients that we see every day.”
Your VRIP mentorship under Gezzer Ortega is looking at this very question of how language concordance might affect surgical care, part of the Ortega lab’s broader focus on leveling inequities in care. What do you think your mentor is bringing to your VRIP experience?
I think for one, he’s very accomplished. He and I come from very similar roots: He’s also first-generation of immigrants and Latino. For him to have these very similar experiences and get to where he is now has been nothing short of inspiring.
It’s been a huge learning curve trying to keep up with his standards. He definitely pushes me because he wants me to be great researcher, and hopefully one day a surgeon. He is where I see myself 10 years from now: a physician, researcher, leader, and teacher to others. He’s the real deal.
I think it’s very important to be cognizant of the value of having a Latino/Hispanic background in the United States and within our healthcare system, because we are still very underrepresented in the field professionally and we are still facing many inequities when it comes to caring for our patients. As a professor, I will want to get back into the trenches, not only to teach the next generation of physicians beyond the textbook, but also to find ways to continue to mentor and lead, to show people that it is possible to be a minority in a white coat.
From your perspective, why is it important to have more diversity in healthcare?
I think a lot about diversity in medicine. We all view life through our own lenses, right? It’s very hard to compare our lives to others or to try to understand what other people’s lives are like. Irrespective of your race or ethnicity or how you look, we all have diverse experiences in how we live. But being in the Latino community, we often tend to be affected by more of the systemic issues, not only within the fields of medicine, but other areas as well. Those experiences early on provide a certain perspective that can allow us to relate more to our patients whether they look like us or not.
Diversity in medicine to me means having the representation and inclusion of individuals from all walks of life and all life experiences, which can help us better serve the patients that we see every day. Without it, we’re not adapting to the population we serve, especially those who are most vulnerable or marginalized because of systemic oppression.
“I want to pursue research that will predominately serve underrepresented communities. I want to help make systemic changes in public health research that will not only address unmet needs but serve communities directly.”
What inspired you to pursue clinical/translational research?
I was inspired to go into medicine in part because I’ve always wanted to give back to my community and serve that population, and specifically, specialized surgical care, which patients often have inadequate access to. As a scientist, I want to pursue research that will predominately serve underrepresented communities. I want to help make systemic changes in public health research that will not only address unmet needs but serve communities directly.
Why did you want to be part of this program, VRIP?
For a couple of reasons. For one, I am much more nontraditional. It took me longer to get to medical school than I had hoped. At first it was a struggle, but in the end, I realized that it was meant to be for a reason, and I’m very appreciative now that I took the scenic route as opposed to going straight out of college. As a result I came into medical school more mature, with more of an understanding of what I wanted to do and accomplish in medicine. When I was accepted, before I even started medical school, I looked for opportunities to get involved in research. I already had my eyes on the prize about how to spend the summer after I started medical school. No other program is dedicated to trying to advance and amplify the efforts and the work of people like me or my mentor, Gezzer Ortega.
Part of my interest was working at a world-renowned institution such as Harvard Medical School and its affiliated hospitals, and being immersed in a program driven by the same mission that I value and what I’d like to accomplish in my profession around diversity and inclusion.
As a minority in medicine it’s sometimes very lonely. It was really hard to find mentors, and when I did find them–all of whom were amazing–rarely, if ever did they look like me. Knowing that I was going to be matched with a mentor who comes from a similar background was a huge motivation for me to apply to this program.