Dr. Jose Cruz is an oncologist and hematologist at the DHR Health Oncology Institute. But just over a decade prior, Cruz had a different job.
Before finding himself caring for patients, he was in the classroom teaching chemistry to high school students in the Rio Grande Valley. This week, he recalled how his journey from the classroom to health care started, and the gratitude he holds for having the opportunity to serve in two important institutions.
Cruz graduated from Edcouch-Elsa High School in 2001 and attended Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where he pursued an undergraduate degree in Biomedical Engineering.
It was in that pursuit that Cruz found a new calling.
“I stumbled upon medicine, but indirectly,” Cruz said Tuesday. “I went to Yale thinking that I was going to be an engineer. I actually did get an engineering degree. I ended up majoring in biomedical engineering. At that point, most of my projects involved working on how to improve medical imaging to guide physicians into clinical decision making.”
According to Cruz, these experiences helped mold what would become an interest in health care. It just wasn’t the right time.
“Just being involved in those projects made me more curious and sparked an interest in medicine,” Cruz said. “It wasn’t until the last year out of college that I said I want to pursue a medical education, but by that time it was already too late. I was already close to graduating, and I couldn’t fit in the pre-medical requirements.”
That was when Cruz decided to return to his home in the Valley and became a teacher working full-time during the day while he pursued his medical degree in the evenings.
This was necessary to fund his way through his studies.
“That’s how I came upon teaching,” Cruz recalled. “It allowed me the flexibility to work and earn an income because sadly my parents couldn’t help me pursue further education full-time. It allowed me to gain an income and at the same time the flexibility so that I could keep on attending school in the evenings.”
Cruz taught at Santa Maria High School for two years and Edinburg High School for another two, teaching integrated physics and chemistry.
He said it was certainly challenging trying to balance being an educator while also seeking a medical degree. But he also said the key to his success was his persistence.
“Being persistent will allow you to retain as much as possible as long as you put the effort into it,” Cruz said. “I won’t say that it was an easy road. It was a bit of a struggle, but I am fortunate enough that I am capable of doing both things successfully.”
His persistence helped Cruz earn a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine from the University of North Texas Health Science Center, a chief residency for internal medicine and pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma Health Science Center-Tulsa School of Community Medicine, a clinical cancer genomics/risk assessment certification from City of Hope Division of Clinical Cancer Genomics, and lastly, a fellowship in Hematology and Oncology from the University of Louisiana Health Science Center-Shreveport.
“It’s real funny because I’ve been like a professional student most of my life,” Cruz said. “While being a teacher and getting my pre-med requirements, I also got an MPH (Master’s Degree in Public Health) from Texas A&M Health here in South McAllen.”
Cruz said that achieving each of his goals has been fulfilling, but he takes pride in being able to apply the skills he’s learned to serve his community.
Looking back at his short career as an educator, Cruz said he is able to draw similarities between the two occupations — primarily in the ways that teachers and doctors leave lasting impacts on those they care for.
He referred to one of his former students in particular who has followed in Cruz’s footsteps and is now in his fourth year of residency for dermatology.
“I continue to be a mentor despite having formally left the education system,” Cruz said. “For me, the hardest part was always letting go of working with students. Unfortunately, it is something that I have always missed, but I have always indirectly come back.”