A journey home

The kid who lived in the “Alamo” house, who spent time in “the projects,” who was 7 when his father died. The kid who was dirt poor, a migrant worker at age 9. Unlikely, maybe, but that kid from Alamo, Texas, grew up and got an education. He’s a doctor now. Yes, Dr. Torres.

But he’ll always be Joel. Joel, whose heart belongs to the Valley.

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Joel Torres, M.D., visits his childhood home, called "the Alamo house."

Instinctively, perhaps, Joel Torres, M.D., has always known that highways in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley run both ways. Out, yes. But always back again. The roads took Joel and his family to the asparagus fields of Michigan as migrant workers, and back. They took Joel to places he could receive the finest education imaginable, first to the East Coast, then the West Coast, then to medical school at UT Health San Antonio. And he could have stayed away.

But then he wouldn’t be Joel.

Driving slowly down E. Acacia Avenue in Alamo in his beat-up 2005 Honda Civic, he points out this and that, scenes from his youth. He’s soft-spoken, calm, practical—humble.

He stops in front of one of his childhood homes, now an abandoned cinderblock house adorned with graffiti. The house has a strong resemblance to the Alamo shrine in San Antonio, with its familiar bell-shaped façade.

“I was known as the kid who lived in the Alamo house,” Joel said, chuckling. He recalled a friend down the street, playing in the rubble on the vacant lot next door, being shot by an air gun and his mom having to dig the pellet out. He remembers walking the short block to Ben Franklin Elementary, where he made his second-grade teacher cry by talking about his father’s death.

When his father died in 1986 at age 34, he left 7-year-old Joel, wife Teresa and three other children alone and poor.

Joel’s older sister, Leonor, remembers the difficult days. “Our mom was young, in her 30s, and she found herself alone with four children,” Leonor said. “The struggles were financial, yes, but also emotional. She had to face things head on.”

Teresa, like her husband, was born and raised in Mexico. She spoke only Spanish, had little education and few marketable skills. Without a steady income but with mouths to feed, Teresa made the difficult decision to travel north with her kids to work the fields as migrant laborers. Every summer for eight years, the entire family would pack up and drive to Michigan or Idaho to work from sunrise to dusk. In Michigan they picked asparagus. In Idaho, potatoes and beets.

Joel Torres, M.D., stands in his childhood homeThey lived in a tiny 10-foot trailer, with the kids in bunkbeds and mom sleeping on the floor. They’d rise between 3 and 4 a.m., every morning. It was grueling, monotonous, back-breaking work.

Occasionally, Joel has flashbacks. “I remember sitting on the machines picking asparagus, and you’re kind of hunched over all day. And the machine rolls forward and you’re grabbing the asparagus. It’s cold and your hands are hurting and you have to keep on doing it.”

The field work, supplemented by small jobs such as housecleaning that Teresa would pick up during the school year, sustained the family, but barely. “I realized early on that I was poor,” Joel said. “I learned not to ask for things. Even food became an issue. I started to notice that my mom wasn’t eating until we all did. So I wouldn’t eat until she did, and we’d kind of argue over that.”

When the rent went up on the Alamo house a few years after his father died, the family had to move just blocks away to “the projects,” as he calls them, federal assistance housing where they stayed for a couple of years.

Joel and his siblings readily credit Teresa with the strength of an army in keeping the family together no matter what. Family was the most important theme of her life. Unity. Caring for each other.

And whether in Alamo or the fields, there was one other constant message from Teresa to her kids. “Always, we’d hear, get an education or you’ll be doing [migrant work] the rest of your lives,” Leonor recalled. “Education was everything to her.”

When Joel came home with 95s on his report card, she’d get upset. She wanted 100s.

“[Our mom] absolutely pushed all of us,” Joel said. “She would demand excellence.”

By eighth grade, inspired by an algebra teacher, Joel became a self-described math nerd, joining the math club. “Math was an escape,” he said. “I understood it so well and enjoyed it so much. In summers, I’d read math textbooks for fun. It helped me focus in high school.”

Joel’s intellect was on full display. He graduated as valedictorian of Pharr-San Juan-Alamo High School. And then, a new road beckoned. Encouraged by a teacher, he applied for and was admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, even though he’d never heard of the prestigious, Boston-area university. Scared to death, he remembers, off he went, a poor kid from the Valley.

At MIT, where he’d eventually earn a mechanical engineering degree, one of Joel’s projects was designing a crib for babies, complete with sensors and alarms that might prevent sudden infant death syndrome, or crib death. It was his first real exposure to the medical field.

Now with an interest in medical devices, Joel entered graduate school at Stanford University to study biomechanical engineering. There he worked on a team designing enhanced intubation devices and vascular access grafts for patients on hemodialysis. And for the first time, he started interacting with patients and physicians. He had found his calling.

“I started thinking, medicine interests me more,” he said. “That world interested me more than the engineering world.”

Determined now to be a doctor, the trained engineer returned to the Valley and what was then UT Pan American to take courses required for medical school. Joel chose UT Health San Antonio partly due to its diversity and, especially, its proximity to his beloved Valley. He became one of a handful of students, many of whom were the first in their families to attend college, much less medical school, offered a full-ride scholarship through the philanthropy of Joe and Teresa Lozano Long.

Joel remembers walking the stage in May 2009 to receive his medical degree. Unlike MIT and Stanford, so far from Texas, his mom and siblings and friends from the Valley were there cheering him on. “It was almost like I was watching myself on TV,” he said. “It was like, is this actually happening? The moment I got the degree it was just a sense of accomplishment, of joy, of knowing that everything that had happened in my life had led up to this moment. I knew my life’s direction.”

Joel spent three years in residency in emergency medicine at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in El Paso before taking the road that always leads home to Alamo and the Valley.

Now 38, married to his wife, Alex, and with three young children, Joel works at a free-standing emergency medicine clinic in Edinburg for Rio Grande Regional Hospital. The family lives in a modest home in San Juan (“only because we couldn’t find a house in Alamo,” Joel said), within a mile or two of his mom, his boyhood haunts, the church he’s been attending since he was a boy, the schools of his youth, the roots of his dreams.

Aside from the Valley being home, Joel admits that the region’s health disparities also drew him back. Access to care and cultural factors have always been problematic, he said. Hispanics experience higher rates of obesity, diabetes and other diseases, lower rates of health insurance, and less access to health care providers.

“I have no memories of my dad being well,” Joel said. “I don’t know if it was because my mom and dad didn’t really understand the medical system. But I never remember him going to a doctor for a check-up. The only time he saw a doctor was when he had to go to the hospital. He’d just have to wait until he was very sick.”

His dad, also named Joel, had an infection in his arm so long that it spread into his chest and proved fatal.

“I never remember going to a doctor myself unless something happened,” Joel added. “I guess one of the reasons I chose emergency medicine is because of the way I saw medicine growing up. … It was more of an acute event. If you had a laceration or a broken arm, you’d go to the doctor. But you wouldn’t go to the doctor for a check-up. That didn’t make any sense.”

Joel enjoys the immediacy of ER work. “The most rewarding part is being able to help people right when they need help,” he said.

Most of all, Joel is content being home.

“I love the people down here. I love the area. I know a lot of people don’t,” he said, laughing. “For me it was really about family. And the people are friendly and giving, so it just felt right for me to come home and be of some help to my community. Growing up, we may have struggled, but really it was the helping hands of the people at our church and others in the community who got us through.”

He understands the culture, the people, the way they live their lives and the reasons they do what they do, he said.

“And so for me, now being trained as a physician, I felt like now I have the skills that could help the community,” he said. “I really can’t imagine being a physician [anywhere else].”

Joel Torres, M.D., helps at his churchBut, in typical fashion, Joel isn’t satisfied with doing good when he can do better. He volunteers at his church, Primera Iglesia Bautista in Alamo, and participated in a medical/mission trip last summer to Senegal in West Africa. He also works at McAllen’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church at a respite center for immigrants.

His guiding principle, Joel said, has always been to contribute to the community that nurtured him. Watching his kids grow up in the Valley, sending them to a public school, working on common goals to move the Valley forward, are “more important to me than living in a big house in a big city,” he said. “I enjoy being seen as Joel and not Dr. Torres, if that makes any sense.”

Joel met Adela Valdez, M.D., in his last two years of medical school while doing clinical work at the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen (now part of the UT Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine). He considers her a role model, and she returns the admiration.

“If you look at his background, he came from very humble beginnings,” said Dr. Valdez, now associate dean of student affairs at the UT Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine. “He went through all these obstacles and on to the best schools in the nation. He just saw obstacles as challenges. He’s filled with humility and compassion and altruism. To me, he’s a servant leader, an incredible human being who happens to be a doctor.”

For Joel, happy that the road has returned him safely home, the goal is to be seen as a good father and a good husband, a good family man. And as a caring physician who’s engaged in the lives of those around him.

“Honestly, I can’t believe it sometimes,’” Joel said. “The places that I’ve gone. Up to Boston. Out to San Francisco. For a lot of people it’s almost like a dream. It’s something that’s difficult to obtain, if not impossible. That’s why I always go back to, it wasn’t my doing; it was the community and the people around me. My mom and brother and sister, they had to work. I owe it all to them.”

Joel Torres, M.D., stands in an emergency room hallway

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