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Jonathan Trejo doesn’t remember the exact moment he decided to become a doctor, but he remembers the precise moment he wanted to feel free.
He’d just broken up with his boyfriend and found himself, alone on his 24th birthday, at Cirque du Soleil. Even in his sadness, he was astounded by the strength, grace and joy of the acrobats.
“They looked so free. But at the same time, they were so in control,’” he says.
It was a feeling he connected to — and pursuing this feeling began a journey that led, eventually, to medical school.
A better way
A few days after the performance, Trejo joined a circus gym, which led to him competing as a member of the UC Berkeley gymnastics team. There he met the people he calls his second family, as well as his fiancé, Jaime. Then he became a personal trainer.
Trejo loved helping people heal and become stronger through fitness — he still does — but he felt that something was missing.
“I saw the orthopedic surgeons intervene and help my clients heal a lot faster than I could do with exercise alone,” says Trejo. “I thought, ‘I have to learn this, too.’”
Matters of health and dignity
In truth, Trejo had wanted to be a doctor since high school, when his grandfather died because of diabetes. However, he always found reasons not to pursue medical school. It didn’t help that other people told him that his grades weren’t good enough and that he probably wasn’t cut out to be a doctor.
He tried other career tracks: teaching, journalism, personal training. However, his passions always led him back to healthcare. He volunteered, doing HIV testing and counseling through a nonprofit in San Francisco, and he worked as a scribe in an emergency department.
The experiences were rewarding, but he felt limited in these roles. Then, one day, he overheard a doctor refer to a transgender patient as a “tranny,” and he realized that many physicians had trouble identifying and addressing transgender patients in everyday practice. So he spoke up.
“I said to the doctor, ‘This is how we can ask questions to learn how to address people in the LGBTQ community to help them feel comfortable,” says Trejo. With the guidance of other physicians, he helped lead a training for healthcare providers throughout the hospital to educate them on important LGBTQ issues.
It was in those moments that Trejo realized that doctors could be advocates for underrepresented patients as well as healers. He made his next leap: applying to medical school.
Trejo found his own advocate on the UW School of Medicine interview committee, immediately connecting with LeeAnna Muzquiz, MD ’00, now the associate dean for admissions. They bonded over their shared experiences in healthcare as Native Americans. (Trejo is of Native American and Mexican heritage.)
“She was the first doctor who said, ‘I’m going to fight for you,’” says Trejo. “She became one of my teammates. I was like, ‘Wow, if you’re representing the school and there are other passionate people like you here, I want to come to the UW.”
Trejo has some donors fighting for him, too. He’s the first in his family to go to medical school, and the first to go to college, and he received the Aldo, Mary and Ugo Benedetti Family Endowed Scholarship, a scholarship for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who’ve worked for their communities. It’s lowering his loan debt burden and allowing him to focus on his studies.
“I’ve come to realize that you can turn your dreams into reality with dedication, persistence and support from people who will be thrilled to see you succeed,” Trejo says.
At 28, Trejo’s medical-school journey has just begun, but he’s on his way to becoming a great advocate for his patients. He knows what it’s like to be judged, unfairly. He understands the value of strength and the importance of listening.
“I’ve been learning a lot, just by listening to patients — what their struggles are and what they think is ideal healthcare for them,” says Trejo.
And Trejo knows the importance of being a role model. Although many of his older siblings struggle with issues of addiction and homelessness, the younger ones have all attended college and are pursuing their own dreams. They remind him, consistently, that he’s their exemplar. That his high-flying dreams are their dreams, too, and the dreams of many others from a similar background.
“When I was a boy, I read Harry Potter books and wished that I could learn magic and use it to have a positive impact in the world,” says Trejo. “Now, I’m changing lives through the UW School of Medicine.”