By Luciana Chavez, Special to the Office of External Relations

MERCED, Calif. — Joseph Trujillo, MD is 11 months away from being free to practice medicine wherever he wants.

He’ll do that in Merced County, a fact that is both a miracle and a destiny fulfilled.

HUSTLING TO SCHOOL

Trujillo, middle child of Catalina Sanchez and William Trujillo between sisters Lisa and Julie, didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming a doctor.

It came from seeing his mother earn her GED, then graduate from Merced College after her divorce. Watching Catalina then care for people with dementia and multiple sclerosis, Trujillo silently dreamt of a medical career.

But what education would he need? How would he pay for it? His sister Lisa Veenstra says Sanchez forced her brother to go to Merced College to be a nurse because she couldn’t afford to send him to medical school.

Trujillo had friends from Merced College going to UC Davis and Mireya Macias, his favorite Merced College professor, and the first to encourage him academically, was also an Aggie.

At Davis, Trujillo got tougher while studying for a BS in Neurology, Physiology and Behavior. Surrounded by equally ambitious students, his quiet dream became a real goal.

CHASING A DREAM

Trujillo graduated from UC Davis in 2012, then did a post baccalaureate year with the UC Davis School of Medicine.

“Everything about that year resonated with me,” he said.

The UC Davis post-baccalaureate program nurtures disadvantaged students on their way to medical school. During his year, Trujillo focused on studying for the MCAT and significantly improved his scores.

Excelling during the extra year helped Trujillo then earn a spot in the San Joaquin Valley Program in Medical Education.

SVP PRIME— a partnership with UC Davis School of Medicine and UC San Francisco-Fresno Medical Education Program—produces doctors from poorer communities who then practice in similar communities. It’s a medical pipeline for places like Merced County that struggle to attract doctors from the outside.

Trujillo knows our area. I mean the Merced High graduate met his wife Alyssa on his first day of sixth grade at Cruickshank Middle School. How very “Merced” of him, right?

That background proved invaluable during his third and fourth years of medical school while working rotations at facilities throughout the San Joaquin Valley.

Even though he was matched with hospitals in Brooklyn for his residency after graduating from UC Davis School of Medicine in 2018, he was still relieved.

Different places, right? No. The San Joaquin Valley and Brooklyn are both populated with undocumented, uninsured people who don’t have access to quality health care.

OUTRUNNING A VIRUS

Trujillo has thrived while rotating between the King’s County Hospital Center and the Brooklyn Veteran’s Administration Hospital. Still his final year began in a blue funk courtesy of the coronavirus.

The most horrific time in New York during the COVID-19 crisis started when Trujillo was monitoring cardiac patients back in March.

He says one day a rumor was floating around that the hospital had admitted its first COVID patient. Three days later, they had 50.

Trujillo lost count by the time his wife was asked to work from home and his family began asking how bad it was. Meanwhile the death toll rose.

“It flipped our hospital upside down,” Trujillo said. “It got very real and very dark.”

Trujillo and his peers got a tough-love education unbidden.

“My residency will change me forever,” he said.

“It’s exactly what they say, ‘The more you know, the more you realize what you don’t know,’” Trujillo explained. “And we had no choice but to treat COVID patients. We have no choice but to make decisions quickly because our patients’ lives depend on it. We have no choice but to grow up and learn from it.”

That dark reality also forced him to sacrifice.

When his father William died in April 2019, at the end of his first year in Brooklyn, Trujillo couldn’t grieve. He and Alyssa had planned to go home to Merced this April for the first anniversary of his father’s death. They couldn’t travel thanks to the pandemic.

Exhausted on a never-ending schedule of overtime, he said he felt hurt, angry and frustrated, even while New Yorkers suffered.

Then, a few weeks ago, Trujillo met a woman in the ER. That mother of four had been diagnosed with breast cancer in March. She had mastectomy surgery the day before her birthday in April. Then she landed in the ER in August.

“She set me straight,” he said. “I can’t complain about the last 3-4 months. Right now, the most difficult part is the anxiety of going into work. But we’re doing it and trying to make the best decisions we can every day.”

Trujillo knows that struggle is a gift wrapped in an ugly box.

He said, “I think we’ll be ready for anything once we’re done.”

SPRINTING HOME

Trujillo will finish his Brooklyn residency in 11 months, but Merced beckons.

Trujillo can’t wait to be a primary care physician, supporting adults suffering from preventable diseases like hypertension and diabetes.

He misses family. He dreams of the grilled veggies on tacos from Tacos Hidalgo on 16th and 140.

“Hey, I wear ‘209’ on my sleeve,” Trujillo said, chuckling.

He belongs in the San Joaquin Valley, though no one in New York understands why he would return here after succeeding in one of the most dynamic cities on earth.

“You could go anywhere!” they whine. They imply that this place isn’t worthy of his talent, even while it badly needs his skills.

Dr. Trujillo disagrees.

“New York is great,” he politely replies, “but I want to go home.”