Brittany Rodriguez Realizing Her Dream in Medical School

April 12, 2023
VOL 25 NO 1

Brittany Rodriguez had not told her mom and stepdad she was considering medical school when she mailed them her acceptance letter from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. She had not intended to keep it a secret, but she felt the need to keep the dream to herself until it became real.

Thinking back several years, Rodriguez says, “I scored really well on my first biology exam in college, and my professor suggested that I should go to medical school. My first thought was ‘You can’t do that!’ But his comment planted a seed.”

Yet, that seed took the next eight years to grow. As someone who followed a non-traditional path to get to UW — where Rodriguez is a first-year medical student — she says her experiences have provided unique clarity about the direction she wants to take.

“I love the brain, and I love learning about the nervous system,” she notes.

Rodriguez plans to pursue a career in neuro-critical care and work with complex patients and/or those with traumatic brain injuries. She is working toward a global health certificate and will do a summer 2023 field experience in Thailand. She hopes to apply her passion for health equity and patient advocacy to a research project with the UW Center for Patient Partnerships. And she represents her class on the Educational Policy and Curriculum Committee.

Back in 2011, as a first-generation college student from Kingston, Illinois — a rural community of 1,100 people near Rockford — Rodriguez says she could not imagine herself as a doctor because she had not seen anyone else do so.

Following two years of study at a community college, her next stop was Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, which is close to her grandparents’ farm. The night before her six-hour move south, her stepdad experienced a medical emergency, and Rodriguez drove him two hours to the Edward Hines, Jr. Veterans Administration Hospital near Chicago.

There, they learned that Rodriguez’s stepdad needed a heart transplant. The physicians transferred him to the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison, where UW–Madison’s world-renowned experts performed the transplant.

Rodriguez says it was eye-opening to learn about all of her stepfather’s post-transplant medications, their side effects, and his limitations due to his immuno-suppressed condition. But meeting the family of the organ donor provided a moment of awe that left an indelible impression on Rodriguez’s own heart.

“I remember them taking the stethoscope, listening to my stepfather’s heartbeat, and saying, ‘That’s my son’s heart.’ That humanizing aspect was huge for me,” she shares. “It was amazing! I couldn’t believe what medicine could do and how it brought people together.”

With a few more steps on her journey to medical school, upon earning her bachelor of arts degree in English with a specialty in creative writing, Rodriguez continued living with her grandmother to support her when her grandfather died.

Two years later, Rodriguez took a big leap and moved to New York City to pursue a publishing career. Finding it difficult to open doors and needing a job, she became a paralegal in a law office that specializes in medical malpractice. This position provided another nudge toward medical school, as it raised her awareness about the need for quality improvement and patient advocacy.

She explains, “You don’t get a case and think, ‘Well, that’s a bad doctor.’ You think, ‘Wow, there was a mistake made here. How can we prevent that in the future, either by implementing policies within the hospital or by finding a way to make medicine safer?’”

In January 2020, with encouragement from her boss, Rodriguez started taking classes at the City University of New York Graduate Center while working full time. When the COVID-19 pandemic caused many places to shut down and later re-open virtually, the ability to work and attend classes remotely helped her manage her 14-hour days.

Rodriguez started applying to medical schools while she worked toward a bachelor of science degree in neuroscience; she received that degree in January 2022. While her stepdad had maintained a strong connection to the Middleton VA Hospital and UW Health, and he speaks to UW medical students about his experience with his transplant, Rodriguez had not intended to return to the Midwest.

Brittany Rodriguez with her mom and stepdad
Brittany Rodriguez (center) with her mom and stepdad

“But when I did my interview at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, everyone I interacted with was incredible, and I felt a strong pull to the school,” she recalls, adding that her family was thrilled to attend her White Coat Ceremony there in fall 2022.

“It’s difficult to explain how competitive it is to get into medical school,” Rodriguez says. “But the magnitude of it really hits when you hear that there were 5,000 out-of-state applicants, and only 30 of us [from out of state] are among the first-year class.”

Membership in the Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA) has provided an important connection to her Puerto Rican culture—something she has craved.

“I grew up with my mom and her side of the family. I’m half Puerto Rican, but I didn’t have much contact with those roots,” Rodriguez shares. “In the community I am from, it’s not something you want to be. Because I [easily passed for being white], it was easy to remove myself from my Puerto Rican side.”

Rodriguez’s time in New York was her first opportunity to connect with her Puerto Rican heritage, and she is grateful for the warm welcome at the school from other Latino students, who share their culture and personal experiences with her. She also appreciates meeting other members of the LMSA because they understand what it means to be the first in a family to attend college.

“As a first-generation college student, you want to reach as far as you can go,” she explains. “And I needed to be sure I could do these things on my own, and make sure I’m doing them with my own internal drive.”

While her journey to UW has taken a circuitous route, Rodriguez says she has gone from feeling like an imposter to someone who is living her true purpose.