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Headlights


“So, how did you get into medical school?”

I have been asked this question in a situation that I had only beforehand seen on social media. We are in the middle of a modern-day Civil Rights movement, of which the tipping point was the murder of George Floyd. The entire world watched the footage of a police officer with his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, and it brought me back to the evening of September 19, 2019. Around the same time, there were many events reporting people of color for doing everyday activities. There had also been many police shootings where suspects were shot dead for acting “suspicious,” such as the shooting of Philando Castile back in 2016. I had followed these stories, watched live video recordings, and read people’s comments and reactions to recent events where police pulled over people for no apparent reason. I also thought I had a plan if I were ever racially profiled by the police. However, I never actually thought I would ever have to use it, especially after getting accepted into medical school. 

My journey started years ago in Southern Mexico. I was raised by a strong, resilient, single mother who did everything to bring me up the best way possible, despite our difficult circumstances. When I was 12 years old, she decided to leave the life she had built as a professional accountant in Mexico and immigrate to Utah for a better future. My story, just like many other immigration experiences, started with the challenge of adapting to a new culture, language and system. I did not know how to fit in, so I thought I needed to do what other Mexican immigrant kids were doing and join the gang culture. I felt that society expected it of me. Fortunately, my mom and stepdad served as my moral compass and taught me the importance of making the right choices to reach my potential. As I increasingly focused on my academics and school involvement, my path diverged from the gang culture into one of endless possibilities. I found academic and community success as an Eagle Scout, Sterling Scholar for French, and even became a high school honors graduate.

When it was time to take the next step and go to college, I realized that my immigration status would not provide me the same opportunities that my peers may take for granted, and in this case, it was college. I found out how to get in-state tuition and obtain the necessary private funding because I was not eligible for FAFSA. After my first year of college, I pursued a proselytizing religious mission for two years to the Utah Valley area, where I served Spanish and Portuguese-speaking immigrants. Once I returned home from my mission, I resumed my studies and decided to go to medical school despite my immigration status. The opportunity to move forward appeared in 2012, when the Executive Administration issued the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA allows individuals brought to the United States as kids and remained undocumented to get deportation deferral and a social security card for employment. I was finally able to get into the medical field as an employee and student since both required a valid Social Security number. Despite the threat to terminate the DACA program by the current Executive administration, I fulfilled all the pre-med requirements, which include many hours of volunteering, patient exposure, research, clinical employment, leadership roles and a competitive GPA and MCAT score. I was blessed to get accepted into the University of Utah School of Medicine. I had finally accomplished something that, at one point in my life, I thought impossible. I remember imagining a conference room with individuals reviewing my application and agreeing to accept me into their program. They believed I was suitable to become a physician despite my immigration status, background, struggles, and everything I had experienced.

When I met my classmates, I noticed that they all appeared to come from an entirely different background than mine, and I questioned whether I was supposed to be in the same space as them. It did not help that I was one of the three fully Hispanic students of my class. The faculty continuously mentioned that we were all meant to be there, but I struggled to believe them because of how out of place I felt. Most of my classmates had come from upper-class backgrounds, many of them with mothers, fathers, or both who were physicians. Neither was my case. When I started passing my exams and performing at the same level as my classmates, I began to think that maybe I did deserve this opportunity as much as anyone else. Just as I was finally getting over my insecurities, one night destroyed all the confidence I had struggled to build. 

After an exhausting day of learning about the cardiovascular and respiratory system and looking at microscopic pathology slides of preserved human lung and cardiac tissue, I stopped by a gas station around 11 p.m. After filling up my tank, I got on the phone with my now-wife and drove off. A couple of seconds later, I saw police lights flashing behind me. I told my now-wife I was getting pulled over and that I would call her back because I did not want her to be worried. I quickly did a mental rundown of anything that would have given them a reason to pull me over. A younger white police officer stood outside my car door, informed me that my headlights were off and asked for my license and registration. I complied. While the officer reviewed my documents, I decided to get some studying done with a phone application that requires me to tap on the screen. As medical students, we try to take advantage of any available time to get some studying done. When the officer returned, I noticed it was not the same one that had pulled me over. He must have seen my confused look because he started with: “Yeah, I know I am not the same officer that pulled you over.”

“Yeah, I’m confused. What’s going on?” I replied. 

“I’m going to need you to step out of the car.” 

“Is everything okay?” I asked, feeling my fight or flight response kicking in. 

“My partner noticed that you were busy with your hands while he was checking your information. It looked suspicious, so he called me over. I am a K-9 unit narcotics officer and we will check you and your truck for drugs. Do you have any drugs you want to tell me about before we start?”

I was shocked. I did not know what I had done to seem suspicious enough to have an additional K-9 unit over. Maybe I had fidgeted too much with my phone as I was studying? Perhaps the police officer had assumed I did drugs because I was wearing a Mexican Baja jacket or “drug rug.” Maybe I could blame cultural appropriation for looking “suspicious,” because these jackets are associated with potheads. It was pointless trying to figure out what had triggered the officers’ response, but I knew I had to comply, so I got out of the car. The police officer commanded me to walk toward his vehicle and stand in front of it, facing the windshield. He had me spread my legs and put my hands behind my back. He then proceeded to search me for drugs.

As he was patting me down, he came across my fanny pack. He was having a hard time taking it off with one hand as he held me with his other hand. I attempted to help him, but he forcibly restrained my hands and reminded me not to make any sudden movements. I was instantly reminded of the reality that the situation could quickly escalate if I made any sudden movements that they could perceive as “threatening.” After frisking me, his partner went to get the dog and had it sniff around my truck a couple of times. I was confused, frustrated, and above all, terrified of what the dog’s powerful sense of smell could detect, and I thought that maybe some of the formaldehyde used to preserve the organs from earlier that day could have impregnated my car seat. After they finished, the K-9 unit officer came back and said that the dog had indicated that there may be drugs in the car and that he had to do a hands-on check. As the officer searched through my stuff, the officer guarding me began questioning me: “So, where are you going?” 

“Home,” I said, “I was in school the whole day, and I am tired, so that’s most likely why I forgot to turn my headlights back on.”

“Where do you go to school?” he asked.

“The U,” I replied.

“So, what’s your major?”

“I am in medical school,” I said, hoping that it would positively influence the officer’s judgment of my character

“Really?” he asked with a raised eyebrow. He must have thought it was a lie because he continued to interrogate me.

“What year?”

“I’m in my first year.”

Still dubious, he asked: “So, how did you get into medical school?” 

I felt as if I was in a courtroom defending myself and asked to give evidence. I could not believe the police officer still doubted me despite the medical student badge I had previously shown him my water bottle with the School of Medicine’s logo. I felt that I did not need to prove myself worthy of medical school to this police officer. I had already done that to the people who mattered. He must have had his personal biases of why he thought there was no way that someone who looked like me could be in medical school. Reluctantly, I briefed him on the many community service hours, patient exposure, research, clinical employment and leadership roles I’d completed to become a qualified candidate. I told him that on top of that, I had to maintain a high GPA and get a competitive MCAT score. 

We were then interrupted by his partner finding my yerba mate. The officer raised it and asked: “What is this?”

“It is a South American herbal tea,” I replied.

“It doesn’t smell like marijuana,” he said sarcastically.

The blatant mistrust in his words heightened my fear. Their determination to view me as a criminal made me afraid that they would find any reason to arrest me. If I got arrested, I would not qualify for DACA anymore, which would make me ineligible for medical school, not to mention being deported. With a prayer in my heart, I mentally went over anything that could potentially give them any reasons for an arrest. Nothing came to mind. Why then, were they treating me as if I was a guilty criminal?

After the search ended and the conversation about what I did in medical school concluded, the officer that was with me said: “The dog sometimes detects lingering smells. If you or someone else smoked some days ago, the dog would still detect it.”

We had just had a conversation about how I was in medical school and thus could not do drugs because I would get kicked out otherwise, but it still did not matter to them.

“I can’t do drugs. I am in medical school,” I reaffirmed.

As I was walking back to my car, the cop next to me said with a smile: “Well, at least you now have a story to tell.” 

I sure did. The police officers thanked me for understanding the “protocol,” and had me wait in my truck while processing my information. I hoped that I would not get a ticket for having my headlights off on top of everything that had happened. The first cop who pulled me over gave me a “warning ticket” and said nothing else would be needed. I drove home feeling humiliated and questioning whether this would be an ongoing part of my life despite any accomplishments I achieve.

The next day, I could not focus on anything. I kept ruminating over the events of the previous night. I was already suffering from “impostor syndrome” from being the only DACA medical student at the University of Utah, so it was not the first time that I had experienced discrimination or racial profiling. However, it was my first time experiencing it as a medical student, and that took me by surprise because I thought I had gotten to a point where people would not question whether I was a productive member of my community. I was wrong. 

So, how does one move past such an experience? The police officer was right when he said I had a story to tell. I will tell my story for those who have been racially profiled and lost their lives at the police’s hands. I will tell my story for those who wonder whether they can accomplish their goals and dreams amidst the current political environment. I will tell my story to verify a phrase that a good friend and mentor once said to me: “There are people who are bothered by your mere existence.” We do not have to prove ourselves to anybody but ourselves. We must get to know who we are and what we can accomplish despite society’s biases, prejudices and racist ideologies. These experiences will shape us to be more empathetic servants to those we will serve as professionals. 

Despite the traumatic nature of my experience, it helped me realize that I thought of myself the same way those police officers thought of me. I had been feeling out of place just as they felt I was out of place. I did not realize my own headlights had been off during this journey. I have come to terms with the fact that I cannot change people’s minds about what they think of me, but I can change my attitude. I am Mexican, a DACA recipient and a medical student whom God has blessed to be where I am by empowering me to overcome numerous obstacles that have made me a more resilient individual. As other people’s stories are brought to light through social media or articles, this experience has forced me to reflect on my self-perception. My headlights are now on.

Image credit: Night Driving by jayRaz is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Joaquin Zetina Joaquin Zetina (1 Posts)

Medical Student Contributing Writer

University of Utah School of Medicine

Joaquin is a second-year medical student at the University of Utah School of Medicine with a BS in Medical Laboratory Sciences. He looks forward to eventually specialize in pediatric oncology. His pursuit in medicine is motivated by God, his wife, and his parents.