A Life Committed to Service
By Ginger Hall Carnes
It was Oct. 27, 2006, and 17-year-old running back Leo Lopez III was lying on the football field with a subdural hemorrhage in his brain. He was rushed to the hospital for emergency brain surgery. “It was a day I’ll never forget,” he recalls.
“It was all hands on deck–from the coaching staff to the trainer to the community to the ambulance driver to the technicians to the radiologists to the imaging center to the physician who was on call that night to the nursing staff. It was really a team-family-community effort to get me back on my feet. I’m forever indebted to everyone for that,” he said, his voice quivering with emotion. He spent a week in the hospital, several months at home and endured a slow return to his senior year at Rio Grande City High School where he managed to graduate on time in 2007.
The teenager already had experience with medical facilities. His mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997, had a recurrence in 2001, and was diagnosed with Stage IV in 2009. She continues to fight her battle.
Her journey introduced him to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Growing up in a small agricultural community in the Texas Valley, “I was just blown away by these magnificent facilities and the doctors, wearing long white coats, who were taking care of my mom. That kind of lit the fuse.”
During his last two years of high school, Lopez was enrolled in South Texas College through the Dual Enrollment Medical Science Academy. After recovering from brain surgery, Lopez began volunteering with public health initiatives dedicated to increasing access to health care in his community.
Since his high school graduation, Leo Lopez III, M.D., has accomplished a great deal by the young age of 30. Dr. Lopez earned a bachelor’s degree in biomedical science from Texas A&M University in 2011 and graduated from the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine at UT Health San Antonio in 2015. As a Long Presidential Scholar, he credits the Longs’ financial gift for the freedom to concentrate on providing for the underserved without the burden of many thousands of dollars of student loan debt. Joe and Teresa Long’s generous scholarship program covered his entire medical school education.
“To have the support and generosity of the Long family has given me the opportunity, not just to pursue my dream of being a primary care clinician, but also to extend compassion and reduce suffering beyond the confines of my clinic. I have become active in the community and worked with others to address health and health disparities because of support from the Long family,” he said.
While in medical school, he carved out the time to write articles for the world report section of the international medical journal, The Lancet, on health disparities and issues happening along the Mexican border. He’s traveled to Central America, Japan and the Middle East and used media film studies expertise from his high school days to produce documentaries highlighting social determinants of health and emphasizing the status of working-class families who lack access to health care.
From 2015 through 2018, he completed his residency in family medicine at Christus Santa Rosa Hospital in San Antonio. While there, he founded a non-profit called Salud, Su Derecho or Health Is Your Right, whose mission is to work with stakeholders in the community to identify health disparities and address them as a community. Since it launched in the fall of 2016, the organization has hosted a health summit with elected officials and community-based organizations which culminated in the establishment of strategic health priorities. In the summer of 2018, the group partnered with a women’s organization to create a Women’s Empowerment Program
in Starr County focused on women’s health.
His unselfish work has been recognized. Christus Health honored Lopez for three years with the Heart for Service award, which recognizes a physician’s commitment to serving San Antonio, and with the Resident Physician Teacher of the Year Award in 2018. He was awarded the 2017 and 2018 Hispanic Resident Doctor of the Year and the 2019 Young Physician of the Year by the National Hispanic Medical Association, which is dedicated to empowering Hispanic physicians to be leaders who will help eliminate health disparities and improve the health of Hispanics.
In July 2018, he and his wife, Bonny, moved to Yale University in Connecticut where he is in his second year as a National Clinician Scholar and will earn a master’s degree in health sciences. “Over the two years, we lead and conduct our own research projects with close mentoring. We teach and are active clinically; there are high expectations for the program,” he said, adding there are only seven students in his cohort.
“The Yale program provides scholars the research methods needed to produce high-impact health policy and health services research. Each of us has different visions, different views of the world and different backgrounds,” he shared.
While he is enjoying his time at Yale, Dr. Lopez knows his ultimate goal.
“When I got out of the hospital in early November 2006, I took nothing for granted. The entire lens of my view of the world changed completely. I understood how fragile life is. I said I was going to commit the rest of my life to serving others, experiencing culture, exchanging ideas and contributing to humanity in some way.”
Dr. Lopez recently accepted the position of director of health equity for a public safety-net hospital system in New York City. He will split his time between clinical care and health policy implementation.