The family doctor

Erika Garcia combines healing with heritage

 

February 4, 2018

Tony Bullocks

Dr. Erika Garcia, an eastern New Mexico native, is one of two bilingual doctors at Roosevelt General Hospital.

PORTALES — When Erika Garcia was a first-grader at Parkview Elementary School in Clovis, she really only wanted one thing: To be able to talk to and understand the other little girls so she would have friends to play with at recess.

Three decades later, she looks back on that from a position with a slew of titles and professional memberships: family medicine doctor, director of the Roosevelt General Hospital Physicians Clinic, member of the American Academy of Family Physicians, American Board Certified in Family Medicine.

"Growing up, Spanish was all we spoke in our home," Garcia said. "It was difficult, at first that is, starting school and only knowing and speaking Spanish. But because I really had no choice, I learned English quickly. I believe facing that adversity early in my life made me a better student."

Garcia arrived in the United States in 1985 as a 5-year-old when her mother, Elvia Mendoza, brought her and her siblings to Clovis from Mexico City to join her father, Jose Mendoza, who had arrived ahead of them to work in the area.

Her thirst for knowledge started early. Before her family moved to the United States, she remembers following her older sister to school in Mexico so she could sit beside her and absorb everything.

"I always wanted to be the best in every class," she said. "I always wanted to learn."

Garcia said her parents "valued education and hard work, and instilled the same values in my siblings and me. This is the work ethic I live by today and that my husband and I try to instill in our children every day."

It was at one of her parents' medical appointments when Garcia was 10 that she says she knew medicine was her future.

Comfortably fluent in her second language by third grade, Garcia was the family translator for her parents when they conducted business or needed to see a doctor.

"I always loved learning about the human body," Garcia said. "I enjoyed talking to the doctors and being involved in my parents' well-being. I saw a minor procedure being done on my mother, and I was so amazed. I knew I wanted to be a family physician."

She went through fifth grade at Parkview, then did sixth grade at La Casita, junior high at Gattis, and graduated as one of the top students in the Clovis High School class of 1998.

Experiences she had through Upward Bound while she was a high school student not only introduced her to fellow Clovisite Dominique Garcia, who would later become her husband, but also reinforced her desire to study medicine.

"Upward Bound is a good program for underserved and minority students," Garcia said.

In addition to participating in the program through Eastern New Mexico University, she said, "I did a math/science Upward Bound at the University of North Texas at Denton. It really helped me focus. I always took advantage of anything that would help me."

• • •

Dominique Garcia, a few years his wife's senior, attended ENMU on a math/science scholarship. He was an Upward Bound counselor the first time he met Erika. Although they shared a home town and many interests, their paths had not previously crossed.

By the time they married, Erika Garcia was already knee deep in studies at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.

Like his wife, Dominique Garcia was a first-generation college student, but he pursued his higher education closer to home.

"I'm a go-with-the-flow guy," he said. "I stayed here. No regrets."

Dominique finished a teaching certification, and started a master's degree in counseling, a field he considers his true calling.

The two were married and living in Albuquerque - he was working as a middle school science teacher and she was in medical school - when they found out their first child was on the way.

"Dom put his work and studies aside for our family," Erika Garcia said, becoming a stay-at-home parent who describes himself as an overprotective father.

"Our oldest was 3 months old when I started my residency," Erika said.

Dr. Valerie Romero-Leggott remembers Garcia well from those medical school days. Vice chancellor for diversity at the UNM Health Sciences Center and a family practitioner herself, she became Garcia's medical school mentor in 2003, and remains in close contact, having made the transition, she said, from mentor to colleague.

"All along, Erika has always been such a humble and warm-hearted person," Romero-Leggott said. "She cares about others and is such a hard worker ... always wanting to help other people. From the moment I met her, she talked about going back and helping in her community."

Romero-Leggott said Garcia was invited back to UNM to be a keynote speaker at a summer school graduation in 2011.

"She had everyone in tears and laughter," Romero-Leggott said. "She made such a huge impact on our students. She was them. They were her."

She ticks off qualities that make Garcia a good doctor: "Understanding of her community and the people she serves, very empathic, compassionate, speaks Spanish, a good listener, a great sense of humor ... that helps all of us."

• • •

Tina Hill, the RGH clinic administrator, met Garcia in 2012, fresh out of medical school residency, and was delighted to welcome her to the Portales clinic.

"It's very hard to recruit to rural areas," Hill said, "and primary care physicians are becoming a rarity."

When Garcia was interviewed, "her drive and passion for medicine are what really stood out about her," Hill said. "Health care is a mission field. It takes special individuals to do what they do and deal with the stresses every day."

In the five-plus years she's been in Portales, Garcia has been one of the only physicians in the region treating patients with Hepatitis C (a chronic viral condition that causes liver inflammation), through an ongoing relationship with UNM's Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes).

"In just a year, she helped cure over 20 Hep C patients," Hill said. "That is an absolutely remarkable outcome."

• • •

During medical school, Garcia shadowed two Portales physicians: Dr. Lonnie Alexander and Dr. Maxsimo Torres, both family practitioners at that time.

She knew early on that she wanted to follow that same path.

"I like that family physicians take care of people of all ages, have continuity of care, and get to know their patients well," she said. "Newborns to 150, I'll see them all."

"Dr. Garcia cares for three generations of my family," said Barbara Jones of Portales; "my husband and me, my in-laws, and our three kids ... twin boys who are 16 and my little girl who is 9."

Jones said her family "got lucky" when Garcia became their doctor a few years ago, and she appreciates her physician so much she almost hates to recommend her to anyone else and have her be that much busier.

"She's always booked with patients," Jones said, "but when it's your turn, you have her full attention. She's never rushed. She always has time for questions or concerns you might have."

Anne Mason-Jezek, who now lives in Santa Fe, is a friend and former patient of Garcia's.

"Erika is one of the smartest people I know," Mason-Jezek said. "She is a rare combination of strength and softness, intelligence and warmth. She understands the dynamic of the community she is in. She sees her patients for the whole people they are, not just the symptoms they are presenting with. She inspires me to be a better mom, a stronger woman, and a better human being."

• • •

Garcia is one of two bilingual doctors at RGH, a role she values because she knows how much it matters. She's keenly aware

of the barrier language can pose for patients, not only in understanding information accurately, but in

feeling comfortable in a clinic setting.

"Each time I see a non-English-speaking patient for the first time," she said, "the fact that I myself am of Mexican descent and am a fluent Spanish speaker ... I can see it in their demeanor that their comfort level rises and they can feel like their concerns are understood and they will get the care they need."

The Garcias have two daughters now, 6 and 9, students at Zia Elementary in Clovis. The girls have been deliberately raised bilingual, with no English until they were in preschool.

"We tell our children you can't forget Spanish," Garcia said. "You have to use it. Anytime you see someone in need of translation, you need to help.

Don't be shy to know Spanish. What if it was your abuelita (grandmother) who needed help?"

Garcia said the most important people in her life have always been her family.

All four of her daughters' grandparents live in Clovis, one of many reasons Garcia says she was determined to return to the High Plains to practice medicine.

Tony Bullocks

Dr. Erika Garcia and University of New Mexico pre-medicine student Nicole Martinez staff a bi-lingual medical information booth at Heritage Days in Portales last summer.

"Eastern New Mexico has always been a home for me and will continue to be for what I hope to be a very long time," Garcia said. "I draw on my experiences from my life growing up and try to use them to help me serve my patients better," especially patients "who might share the

same cultural and/or socioeconomic issues I faced while growing up," she said.

That would be those who relate well to that little girl on the playground so many years ago.

Reaching out ...

Dr. Erika Garcia actively promotes early childhood literacy through a program she brought to Roosevelt General Hospital called "Reach Out and Read."

It provides books for children ages 6 months to 5 years when they visit the clinic.

"When I see children for well-child checks, I also talk to their parents about literacy and give them a new book to take home," Garcia said.

She also helps oversee the "take one/leave one" rack in the waiting room that helps keep gently used books circulating in the community.

 

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