Aug. 13, 2020 — In a rural village in Guatemala, Elizabeth Acevedo Zapata was building homes during a service trip with her classmates from the University of Miami when she heeded a call that cemented the direction of her future career. A medical missions trip based in the same village was in need of a translator to communicate with local patients, and Acevedo, who is fluent in Spanish, lent a helping hand.
“I worked with doctors as a translator during the day and built homes in the evening. I realized then, not only do I want to be a doctor, I want to be a doctor who represents minorities and serves underrepresented communities,” Acevedo says.
As a second-year UF medical student, Acevedo hones her skills to become the culturally competent, compassionate physician she aspires to be with help from the Maurice H. Givens Scholarship. She calls receiving this scholarship a symbol of the opportunity she’s been given to pursue her life’s passion.
“Getting into medical school is taxing in many ways – emotionally, financially – and we make so many sacrifices along the way. Knowing that someone looked at me and gave me a hand was such a blessing,” she says. “It almost feels like one less hurdle and one more person in your corner who wants you to succeed.”
At the UF College of Medicine, Acevedo has continued serving international populations in need by volunteering as a trip leader for Project DR Salud, a student-run medical outreach trip that travels to the city of San Francisco de Macoris in the Dominican Republic. In addition to fundraising, organizing logistics and coordinating a team of student volunteers, the role required Acevedo to utilize a special skill she’s possessed her whole life.
“I never really valued my bilingual ability, but now I am so grateful,” she says. “Being able to truly communicate with people in what might be a very scary or sensitive situation is an important skill. You can portray more empathy when you’re able to communicate fluently. A little bit goes a long way. It provides a sense of comfort.”
Acevedo’s passion for service was instilled in her during a childhood spent traveling to her parents’ home country of Colombia and spending time at the Spring Hill, Florida hospital where her father works as a pediatrician.
“Whenever we visited Colombia, we went to a hospital or orphanage to volunteer. Seeing the hopelessness, poverty and the complete lack of resources was very impactful when I was young,” Acevedo recalls. “Going with my dad to the hospital and pretending to be a little, 10-year-old doctor made me really love the environment and community of medicine.”
As a high school and undergraduate student, Acevedo continued to lend her services to those in need by interning in pediatric oncology, pediatric physical therapy, emergency medicine and at the University of Miami Hospital’s LGBTQ Center, where she shadowed a physician specializing in gender affirmation surgeries.
“Working at the LGBTQ Center was so special. I spoke with a lot of patients who had been trying to come to terms with themselves and trying to get other people to accept them,” she says. “We often associate doctors with trying to fix external problems. With these patients, it was amazing to see that a physician’s role can be so deep and emotional, helping their patients be who they’ve wanted to be their entire lives. No matter who your patient is, they just want to be truly seen.”
When thinking about her future career, Acevedo is keeping an open mind, but a recent preceptorship in family medicine has strengthened her interest in providing longitudinal, long-term care to patients of all ages and backgrounds. No matter the specialty she will pursue, Acevedo knows the sort of physician she is destined to become.
“I want to create relationships with my patients in which they feel heard and understood. When you take the time to get to know patients, you get a better understanding of their medical history, and they’re more transparent and honest with you,” she says. “The physician-patient bond can bring out the best in both parties.”