After Long Journey, Rodriguez Is Living Her Dream

Natalie Rodriguez
Natalie Rodriguez recently completed her second year at the MU School of Medicine. She decided to become a doctor as a child in Peru after a visiting physician on a medical mission helped her seriously ill youngest sister.

The inspiration to become a doctor is different for every medical student. We asked four students what drew them to medicine. Here is one of their stories.

As a 7-year-old girl, Natalie Rodriguez got off a plane in Tampa, Florida, with her mother and two younger sisters. They didn’t speak English. They had no money. Their combined worldly possessions — blankets, clothes and family photos — fit into one suitcase.

She had a dream, though.

Natalie Rodriguez school photo
Natalie Rodriguez couldn’t speak English when she arrived in the United States as a 7-year-old girl. She was a quick study in the classroom and began working to help support her family at age 15.

Back in Peru, her family had been trapped in poverty and sometimes couldn’t afford basic necessities. Rodriguez recalled walking in on her mother crying as she held her seriously ill youngest daughter, Alex. Her mom apologized for bringing the girls into the world and not being able to give them what they needed.

“I told her, ‘No, no, no, we all have a reason for being here,’ ” Rodriguez said.

Soon afterward, she found her reason. A doctor visiting from the United States on a medical mission trip had set up a clinic in a church across the street from the house where the family was staying. He helped Alex.

“That changed our whole life,” Rodriguez said. “I told my mom, ‘I want to be a doctor.’ ”

Coming To America

Rodriguez never let go of that idea — no matter how improbable it seemed — as she navigated a journey from Peru to the University of Missouri School of Medicine.

Rodriguez’s father had applied for an immigrant visa to the United States as a young man before he married her mother. He was accepted years later, and he went to the United States first while his wife and daughters waited for their paperwork to go through. The family reunited in 1995 in Florida then moved to Oklahoma, where Rodriguez’s father was offered a job as a waiter by a Peruvian acquaintance. Rodriguez began her American education in Oklahoma City and quickly revealed herself as a go-getter.

Each day, Rodriguez had to leave her homeroom and board a bus that took students to a class that taught English as a second language. It was fine at first, but every time a new batch of students joined the class, the whole group started from the beginning. She returned to her homeroom to see a chalkboard full of new math problems and science terms. How was she ever going to catch up to her American classmates, much less become a doctor, if she spent half her day reciting the ABCs?

So she hatched a plan. One day, when it was time to catch the bus to English class, she took a detour to the bathroom and waited.

“I came back from the bathroom and sat back down at my desk,” Rodriguez said. “My teacher said: ‘Natalie, you missed your bus. What are you doing here?’ I said in broken English: ‘I’m not going anymore. I want to stay here and learn what you guys are doing.’ ”

After conferring with the principal, her teacher decided if this little girl wanted to learn that badly, she could stay with the rest of the class permanently.

After a few years in Oklahoma City, the family relocated to Liberty, Missouri. Her father pursued a degree in computer science while working, and her mother held various entry-level jobs. Money was tight, and Rodriguez felt obligated to do her part to support the family.

At age 15, she applied for a job as a Sonic carhop. She was told she would need a letter of recommendation because she was younger than 16. The next day after school, she went back and handed the restaurant manager a letter from her biology teacher.

“I remember the manager said, ‘Man, kid, you just want to work, don’t you? When can you start?’ ” Rodriguez said.

Dream Delayed

After high school, Rodriguez stayed on the fast track toward her dream. She enrolled in the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s six-year BA/MD program, worked restaurant jobs and — as the only family member with a car — drove her younger sisters to their activities.

Her time and attention were divided in too many directions. After her second year, she dropped out of the program.

“I thought: ‘It’s OK. It’s just what has to happen right now. I’ll finish my undergrad, I’ll work and I’ll get back in,’ ” Rodriguez said. “I told my sisters: ‘We have to be a team. Try to work as little as possible. Don’t do what I did. I’ll pay for the apartment and pay for most things. You guys just need to go to school and do well.’

“Years kept going by. I was managing a bar in Kansas City and also bartending. My middle sister Paula was about to graduate from dental school, and Alex was already an accountant. I was like: ‘Oh, no, where did the time go? I need to reapply and try to get into med school. That’s my dream.’ ”

Six years after completing her undergraduate degree, and with her 30th birthday approaching, Rodriguez was accepted into the MU School of Medicine.

Remembering Her Roots

Rodriguez, who is now entering her third year of medical school, no longer needs to take care of her sisters or help her parents financially. She jokes with her siblings that the suitcases they pack for weekend visits are as big as the one that carried all their possessions to the United States.

But Rodriguez doesn’t want to forget the hunger that got her started on this path to a career in medicine.

“We talk a lot about resilience,” said Stephanie Bagby-Stone, MD ’00, the School of Medicine’s faculty liaison for student coaching. “She has gone through stressful, difficult times, and she made it through and took care of other people in the process. She has amazing empathy skills and a compassionate and generous heart.”

Rodriguez isn’t sure what specialty she will choose, but she wants to help patients who desperately need it, as that American doctor did for her youngest sister decades ago. She’s already started.

Rodriguez served as the student leader of a medical mission trip to Guatemala in March 2019. After spending a week treating patients in the mission clinic, the students were free to see the sights and have fun on the final day. The trip’s faculty leader, Jack Wells, MD, associate professor of clinical family and community medicine, announced he was going to spend the day visiting a hospital. One student, Rodriguez, volunteered to join him and serve as a translator.

That day, he saw her interact with one patient after another. He got a glimpse of the doctor she will become.

“She let them talk,” Wells said. “They were telling her about their situation and how frustrated they were. The guys wanted to provide for their families, but they couldn’t find work. She empathized with them. You could tell she knew what they were going through.

“The thing about Natalie is, I don’t think she’ll ever forget where she came from. I don’t think she’ll ever lose touch with that. That’s what is going to motivate her to serve.”