UTRGV professor who was gifted tuition is paying it forward with free red light therapy

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If there is any story that encompasses the positive impact of perseverance and determination toward one’s goal it is that of Juan Gonzalez, who overcame obstacles in pursuit of helping those in his community.

From an early age, Juan has looked for ways to improve physical performance in sports such as track after being a runner for many years. It was this idea that led him down a path that would eventually create a positive impact on those around him.

Juan, now an associate professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, introduced red light and infrared light therapy to the Rio Grande Valley last year to help treat athletes. With this treatment, which helps improve the body’s recovery process at a cellular level, he hopes to improve the well-being of not just athletes but those in the community.

The 61-year-old Edinburg native began his journey in physical wellness at the University of Texas-Pan American (now UTRGV) where he studied pre-medicine. However, he wanted to focus on athleticism and eventually changed his studies to kinesiology.

Although he went on to earn a master’s degree in kinesiology, Juan hoped to continue his education and pursue a doctorate at Texas A&M University. However, this proved challenging after being rejected the first time around.

But that didn’t stop Juan. With about $2,000 to his name he packed up his things and moved to Texas A&M where he attended classes as a special student with a degree.

He was able to take classes until April when he ran out of money and could no longer afford his class or rent.

As luck would have it, around that time he received a $1,000 check from the National Hispanic Fund.

A family friend of Juan’s also helped him get in contact with Wayne Showers, a person he would never forget.

Showers, who was a member of the Board of Regents at Texas A&M University, met with Juan to discuss his portfolio and his efforts to attend the school.

Juan Gonzalez, an associate professor at UTRGV, demonstrates how the panels work Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023 in Edinburg. Infrared light therapy, or photobiomodulation, has been used to advance recovery from injuries for athletes and the general public. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

That conversation changed Juan’s life for the better.

After viewing his work and learning more about him, Showers offered to pay for Juan’s entire tuition each semester he studied at Texas A&M.

“What I do when I do things, I reflect on that one experience and I call it paying it forward,” Juan said with gratitude. “I try to pay it forward because of that one man, because of that gesture that he made.”

For Juan, that moment was a testament to the kindness of others and the courage to invest in one’s future despite the obstacles. It was Showers who helped motivate Juan to continue looking for ways to help those around him.

“There is always people out there who need help,” Juan said.

Once he completed his doctorate, he decided to return to the Valley in hopes of helping those in his hometown.

He went on to work in the clinical and wellness program at Rio Grande Regional Hospital. And he didn’t stop there.

In fact, after acquiring a $100 loan from a bank Juan began his own company, Medflex The Exercise Science Institute, in hopes of training athletes and helping them improve in their sport.

The fitness testing and research center helped those in the community understand the best exercise methods specific to their needs. Through this company, Juan helped pioneer exercise physiology in the Valley.

His work with female athletes began when he helped train a friend’s daughter who participated in both track and soccer. With his help, she improved her mile time from 5:27 to 5:16. As they continued their training she began to place first in each race.

Cameron Mejia’s face, protected by goggles, during infrared treatment at UTRGV on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023 in Edinburg. Photobiomodulation is a form of light therapy that utilizes light sources including lasers, LEDs, and broadband light for the relief of pain. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

Through his efforts, Juan began to gain recognition from other track competitors. He eventually began training the top two female milers in the Valley.

“I’ve kind of become a specialist in training the female athlete, but also working with individuals (who may not) understand exactly why she’s not performing well, that’s where my specialty comes in now, that’s the applied physiologist in me,” Juan said.

Determined to continue working with athletes, Juan began his career at UTRGV, where he started off teaching weight training.

Over the years he continued to advance in his career, eventually teaching pre-physical therapist students about exercise physiology from pediatric to college-age athletes.

He said that one of the key ingredients to improve an athlete’s abilities is to understand the mechanics of one’s body.

“I train two athletes, the academic and the athletic and I see no distinction between both of them because the thought process and the preparation that goes into them being successful are the same,” Juan said.

Throughout his class, he teaches his students to analyze motion through a self-reflection method in which they divide, identify, perfect and connect movements.

“If you divide the body into parts, if you identify the problems, if you perfect the problems, when you reconnect it the movement or the athlete are 10 times better than what was there before,” Juan said. “I don’t train athletes just to show up to compete. I train athletes to compete and dominate the competition, dominate their event — that’s what I do on the academic side as well.”

He hopes to not only train his students but also motivate them to continue giving back to their community.

Their most recent project, the Red Light and Infrared Light Therapy Clinic, is a testament to their efforts in finding ways to help improve one’s health.

What began as a class project to teach his students how to enhance athletic performance has since grown into a treatment available to community members.

“It has been very humbling to see people who have been in some sort of daily dysfunction and then because of the light wellness they improve their ability to just function every day,” Gonzalez said.

He explained that since the clinic’s opening in the summer of 2023, Juan has seen community members who are struggling with arthritis and fibromyalgia become regular patients due to the red light treatment helping ease their pain.

“It seems that we are having a big impact on the other population (community),” Juan said. “It doesn’t cure anything, It doesn’t cure arthritis, it doesn’t cure fibromyalgia but it helps them deal with it a little bit better.”

The clinic is located at the UTRGV Health and Physical Education Building II, in room 117B where they have 15 red light and infrared light panels. The clinic is open to the public Monday through Thursday from 4 to 7 p.m.

He’s also paying it forward by not charging those who ask for the therapy.

In the meantime, Juan is currently working on a research investigation about the effects of red light therapy has on dancers as well as a follow-up research on its effects on acute and chronic pain.

Once the research is completed they hope to begin helping individuals struggling with those issues.

For more information on the treatment, contact Juan Gonzalez at [email protected].