The night after the Uvalde shooting, Owen Saenz stayed awake to pray. 

The second-year medical student at the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine had long planned to pursue emergency medicine, but in those dark hours, he decided to further specialize in pediatrics — to become, he said, “a safe haven” for children who experience such horror.

Saenz had known violence, too. When he was a middle-schooler in Fort Worth, his brother was shot in the chest after years of gang banging. He remembers hoping the medical team at John Peter Smith Hospital would look past his brother’s skin. 

“I tried to imagine that the physicians who took care of (him) weren’t just doing a procedure on a large, tattooed Mexican person, or obvious gang banger,” he said. “But instead, they had intentions of saving his life and providing him with a second chance.”

Saenz’ brother lived. He left the gang and became a lawyer — and Saenz’ mentor, modeling what it means to embrace Chicano heritage and realize a potential previously untapped, Saenz said. 

Saenz works daily to pay those lessons forward. This week, he’s doing so as a leader at Latinos en Medicina, an inaugural three-day camp at The University of North Texas Health Science Center for elementary and middle school kids who might, someday, work in medicine.

“I hope that they are able to see that there’s a surplus of opportunity — that it’s also possible,” he said. “That they are able to see a reflection of themselves in these positions.”

Want to see more from Latinos en Medicina?

Photojournalist Cristian ArguetaSoto takes you into the camp.

‘You’re going to see a lot of scientists coming out of this group’

Lorena Marin was praying over her goals for the upcoming school year when the idea for the camp began to form. Marin is the assistant director of admissions for the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine, and she’d long desired to serve the Latino community in Fort Worth.

“I have a burden for Hispanic kids,” she said, “because I came from those homes.”

Although Latinos compose nearly 40% of the Texas population, the community makes up less than 10% of the state’s primary care physicians, according to a press release about the camp.

About 90% of the nearly 30 campers are Latino, Marin said, but kids of all backgrounds were eligible to attend. 

The camp, which takes place from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. through June 24 on the Health Science Center campus, provides students a glimpse into the medical world. The itinerary includes lessons about nutrition, mental health and anatomy, along with hands-on activities like how to make a healthy popsicle.

Marin’s purpose is twofold: to expose kids to an array of health care professions, “so they can dream about what they can do — about possibilities,” and to teach them how to take care of their bodies. 

On June 23, for example, the campers will learn about diabetes and high blood pressure — lessons planned, in part, by Saenz. Hispanic people  are about 50% more likely to die from diabetes than non-Hispanic white people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Also, although Hispanic people and non-Hispanic white people are equally likely to have high blood pressure, Hispanic people are less likely to get it under control, according to the same data. 

Thursday morning’s schedule included a lesson about sugar. Maria Artiles, a PhD student in the school of biomedical sciences, held up a bag of granulated sugar and asked campers if they’d seen it before. 

The table before her bulged with food: clementine oranges and canned mandarins, grapes and raisins, yogurt and Blue Bell ice cream and Gatorade and Coca-Cola. She asked campers to guess which foods contained more sugar, and she and fellow PhD student Oanh Trinh pointed them, again and again, to nutrition labels. 

The campers, for their part, asked questions: What if you drink the whole bottle of orange juice? Wouldn’t cotton-candy grapes contain more sugar? 

“You’re going to see a lot of scientists coming out of this group, because they have that mindset of wanting to know what’s going on, with questioning everything that’s going on,” Artiles told the Report. “They’re not just going to take whatever we tell them.”

Food and sugar serve as visual aids for children in a sugar content lesson. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

‘It’s about this kid that had a dream to become a doctor’

Saenz grew up in a variety of cities and spaces, including a string of homeless shelters on Lancaster Avenue, but his mom served as an anchor for him, his brother and little sister.

Not long after Saenz was born, his father left, and his mother didn’t speak English. As the children grew, she worked in a variety of roles within the health care industry, opening Saenz’ imagination to jobs within the world of medicine. 

She studied at Tarrant County College and earned a certification in medical assistance. Now, she works at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital in Fort Worth. She’s fluent in English, owns her own home and taught her children, again and again, to value three pillars: faith, family and education.

“She amazes me all the time,” Saenz said. 

Owen Saenz is a second-year medical student at the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine. (Courtesy | Owen Saenz)

After Saenz’ brother recovered from his gunshot wound, he, too, attended Tarrant County College and found his own mentor among the staff. To Saenz, he passed along the desire to study Chicano leaders like Cesar Chavez and books like “Always Running” by Luis J. Rodriguez and “Rain of Gold” by Victor Villaseñor. Saenz has read them both several times.

The journey for his family has been “blessed,” he said. His brother is a lawyer. His sister is a nurse. They’re his best friends, along with his mom. As a family, they work regularly to give back to the communities that surround them — to, as he puts it, “open potential.” 

For Marin, Saenz’ story serves as a model for the kids at camp. 

“It’s about this kid that had a dream to become a doctor — a kid from our community and all the obstacles and barriers that he overcame,” she said. “These kids have the same obstacles and barriers. They could look to him as an example. They can overcome. Because if he had all this stuff going on, and he still is here, and he could successfully finish his first year, they can, too.”

Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Alexis AllisonHealth Reporter

Alexis Allison covers health for the Fort Worth Report. When she can, she'll slip in an illustration or two. Allison is a former high school English teacher and hopes her journalism is likewise educational....