How heroes build heroes
Joel Torres was only 7 years old when his father died at the young age of 34. Joel didn’t understand why his dad was sick. He watched helplessly as his father’s illness worsened, he weakened and passed away in 1986.
After his father’s death, Joel’s mother, Teresa, who had little education and spoke only Spanish, was unable to secure steady employment. Needing to support herself and her four children, she made the difficult decision to accept work as a migrant farmworker. It was labor the whole family could do to supplement their income.
Every summer, the family packed up and drove east from their home in Alamo, Texas, to Michigan, and then west to Idaho where they rose at dawn and worked in the fields until the sun went down. In Michigan they harvested asparagus, apples, peaches and plums. In Idaho they picked potatoes and sugar beets.
“It was vital that we snapped the asparagus at its base as close to the ground as possible. If not, the remaining stem would dry, harden and develop sharp edges that would cut your hands the next day when you picked the adjacent row,” Joel said. “I remember our first year; all of our hands were badly cut because of poor technique. But we learned quickly.”
It was in the fields when little Joel was weary that he would think about his father. He wished he could have cured him. He dreamed of studying medicine someday so he could help others like his dad.
“I always found medicine fascinating,” Joel said. “The ability to heal people seemed more like a superpower than a profession, right up there with flying or telekinesis.”
Joel’s mother wanted to ensure that her children attended school to have opportunities she never had. So, she made sure the family returned home to Alamo before the school year began. The family sacrificed their paychecks in the fall and spring, but their education was worth it and soon paid off.
Joel graduated as valedictorian of Pharr-San Juan-Alamo High School in San Juan, Texas, and went on to earn a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2001 and a master of science in biomechanical engineering from Stanford University in 2003. While at Stanford, Torres’ innate talent for problem solving and engineering soon had him designing award-winning medical devices. The same hands that had been dirty and torn by the sharp asparagus stocks years earlier were now building vascular access grafts for patients on hemodialysis and enhanced intubation devices.
But the memory of his father and the idea of being able to help patients inspired him to apply to medical school. With many options to choose from, Joel selected The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio for his studies because, he said, of its excellent reputation and its close proximity to his hometown and because the diverse student body made him feel at home. He is currently a third-year medical student and plans to graduate in May of 2009.
Scholarship brings students and donors together
Joel first met philanthropists Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long at the Health Science Center when he was named a recipient of the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Presidential Scholarship. He found that the couple had more in common with him than he imagined. Both Joel and the Longs had grown up in small Texas towns. Both Joel and Mr. Long had been valedictorians of their high school classes. And, finally, Mrs. Long’s first name was Teresa, spelled exactly the same as Joel’s mother’s name. But it was Joel’s mother’s work ethic and deep commitment to education that Joel recognized in the Longs.
“I see that education and hard work are very important to Mr. and Mrs. Long, just as important as they have always been to my mother,” Joel said.
Through the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Presidential Scholars program established in 2000 at the Health Science Center, the couple has assisted dozens of medical students from South Texas and the border region. The Longs’ donations of $943,200 to the university have provided full scholarships to medical students who intend to return home to the South Texas/Border Region to practice. Joel is one of 28 medical students awarded scholarships since the program began. The scholarship covers students’ tuition, fees, instruments, textbooks and additional educational expenses.
Joel said he is forever grateful to the Longs for their scholarship because the funds have helped reduce his overall educational debt. “Sometimes I feel that saying ‘thank you’ isn’t enough to show appreciation to people as generous as the Longs,” Joel said. “They have given me a wonderful gift, not only financially, but also the gift of their trust that one day I will honor by becoming the best physician that I can be.”
Celebrating a historic $25 million gift
On May 8, Joel had the opportunity to honor the Longs for their generosity by participating in the naming ceremony of the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Campus at the Health Science Center. The celebration honored the historic additional $25 million gift the Longs gave the Health Science Center this past fall to supplement scholarships, fund research programs, and to recruit and retain gifted faculty. Health Science Center officials named the central campus in honor of the Longs’ generosity.
Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D., Health Science Center president, led the festive ceremony, which was attended by an estimated 400 faculty, staff, students and community leaders.
“Joe and Teresa, you are heroes to all of us,” Dr. Cigarroa said. “Because of you, Texans will be healthier, and additional young people with the dream and determination to pursue health careers will have the resources to do so. Investigators seeking cures for diabetes and other diseases common in South Texas will have a better chance of finding those cures. And additional preeminent faculty will be recruited to teach and conduct research. You have indeed made a grand gift for Texas.”
State Senator Judith Zaffirini, Ph.D., an ardent supporter of education for all Texans and a long-time advocate for the Health Science Center, added a touching tribute to the Longs.
“Today, we celebrate the $25 million transformational gift from Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long. What vision, what commitment, what generosity. That is the stuff Joe and Teresa are made of,” Sen. Zaffirini said. “Their greatest joy, love and passion is their partnership through the Long Foundation where they are dedicated to transforming lives. Joe and Teresa have embraced each other and succeeded together through their partnership. Now, they are helping so many others succeed as well.”
Sen. Zaffirini thanked James R. Huffines, vice chairman of The University of Texas System Board of Regents, and all the Regents for moving forward with the naming of the Health Science Center campus in the Longs’ honor. “Because of your vision, generations of students who will never meet Joe and Teresa Lozano Long will understand their legacy,” she said.
At the close of the ceremony, cheers erupted as Regent Huffines led the unveiling of the monument bearing the new name of the campus.
Joel said he felt privileged to spend time with the Longs and didn’t hesitate to thank them again. But it was the Longs who praised Joel, the other student scholars and all the students at the Health Science Center.
“The reason we’re doing this is because we truly believe this institution can continue to be an outstanding place that helps many, many people in Texas and across the border,” Teresa Lozano Long said. Joe R. Long added: “What we consider the real legacy are the students who will be educated as a result of these endowments. They will make a difference in the future of health care for generations to come.”
Honoring an investment
Making a difference is exactly what Joel plans to do.
“Among the greatest aspects of my education at the Health Science Center are the volunteer opportunities that the school offers me, as well as the time I spend at the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen, “Joel said. “I have had the privilege of living in different parts of the country, and I can think of no other place I would rather practice medicine than in the Rio Grande Valley. It is in the Valley that I feel I will be the most effective as a physician.”
Joel credits the Health Science Center with affording him the knowledge and skills to be the best health care provider he can be.
“The training I’m receiving has helped me to understand all aspects of medicine, disease, suffering and compassionate care. Now I fully understand the illness my father suffered from so many years ago, and I can explain it to my family,” Joel said. “The field of medicine provides the opportunity to learn for a lifetime. Now I’ll be able to help patients who suffer like my father did.” Joel said he wants to pass knowledge on by mentoring high school students interested in careers in medicine.
“Sometimes children just need a little encouragement so they can believe in themselves,” he said. “You have to invest time in them. If I met a child who came from a similar background as mine, I would say to him: ‘Sometimes you can’t control the challenges in your life, but you have the power to change your future through education. Education is the great equalizer, and it’s worth fighting for and investing in.’”
To Joel, his family and the Longs are heroes – examples of hard work, sacrifice and dedication to education. To them, Joel is a symbol of hope and an example of an investment of which they can truly be proud. His father would have been, too.