Joseph Torres remembers being inspired just seeing someone who looked like him – who could someday be him – when he saw the man in the white coat.
Torres was an undergraduate college student doing an internship at Jersey Shore University Medical Center, helping the nurses and doctors in the cardiothoracic intensive care unit with moving patients, monitoring vital signs, everything.
The one particular intensivist was a Hispanic male. Torres, who knew he liked science, but didn’t know what lay ahead as a career, immediately saw some of himself in the physician.
“He was similar to me – to see him explaining things to patients and sharing insights with me was really important,” said Torres. “I don’t even think he even realized this, because I don’t think I formally introduced myself. But I kind of saw myself in him. I thought, ‘If he can do it, then why can’t I?’”
Torres never looked back.
He’s now finishing up a successful four years as part of the inaugural class at the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine. On Match Day he will find out where he will pursue his residency in emergency medicine – and in June he will graduate from the school as a medical doctor. Growing up in a working-class family in nearby Elizabeth, the son of a police officer, he will be the first physician in his family and extended group of friends.
“Joseph Torres is a great doctor-in-training,” said Jeffrey Boscamp, M.D., the interim dean of the medical school. “He has a passion, and the intelligence, emblematic of the kinds of excellent physicians we are fostering here from all different backgrounds.”
ONTO MEDICAL SCHOOL
Torres was always good at science, and a good student through degrees at Elizabeth High School and Salisbury University. But it was that experience talking with the doctors at Jersey Shore which set him on his path. He had to switch up his academic schedule, and ultimately take a gap year to become pre-med starting his junior year.
He joined the inaugural class at the medical school, because it was the right fit at the right time – and it hit the kind of priorities he felt are needed in a medical education.
His Human Dimension experience solidified his commitment to medicine, by getting an even better sense of community. Torres got to meet the mayor of Hackensack, and witness first-hand how certain communities struggle with the social determinants of health, in some cases. His “VP” in the HD program was a single mom who only spoke Spanish, and who was struggling to balance two kids and multiple jobs to make ends meet, especially as one of the children wanted to pursue community college. Torres and his partner in the program helped as best they could.
The close-knit nature of the new medical school meant he will never forget outings like helping to rehab a home for Habitat for Humanity in Asbury Park, and reaching out to public schools which came from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“Growing up in Elizabeth, with some of my best friends being immigrants, I’ve seen how socioeconomic status and the social determinants of health can affect everyone around me,” he said. “That focus for the medical school was absolutely attractive to me.”
Torres was also honored to be nominated as the one liaison to the LCME, based on a passion and interest in medical education. It was a nomination which brought him into close contact with the late founding dean, Bonita Stanton, M.D.
“She always had words of encouragement,” said Torres. “She always tried to open a window to get to see the students as the people they really are – and not just medical students at the school.”
THE ADRENALINE OF EMERGENCY MEDICINE
Torres was an avid baseball player – a pitcher – in high school and college until injuries cut short his career. He relished being at the center of a game – and he was even an assistant high school coach during his gap year in college. His family is also full of first responders: with a father who is a police officer, and a brother who is a firefighter.
So as he pursued medicine, he found himself innately drawn to emergency medicine – the center of initial clinical contact for many patients. It was the adrenaline rush of being on the mound, in a way.
“My initial vision and dream of becoming a doctor was helping patients that come in, no matter the need, no matter their background, and no matter the time,” said Torres. “Emergency medicine fit that need and mold perfectly.”
Torres got to experience some of the most acute needs during his time in medical school, due to COVID-19.
When the medical students were sidelined during the height of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Torres found a way to stay involved. He volunteered three days a week at a drive-through testing center at Kean University close to home in Union County. It involved taking swabs, making phone calls, even directing the seemingly endless line of cars – a sight that really “opened his eyes.” He also helped with some COVID-19 research in the HMH network.
Torres then got a prestigious visiting rotation at the University of Florida -Jacksonville emergency medicine program for students from groups underrepresented in medicine… just in time for an absolute peak of COVID-19 in that part of Florida.
“We saw those patients who had no regular access to primary care – they had nowhere else to go,” said Torres. “Our emergency room was overrun with COVID. I was being pushed with those residents and attendings to do the best we could. It’s given me a lot of confidence heading into my medical career.”
Torres eagerly anticipates a medical career to come.
His ultimate professional goal is to do the best he can for his patients, and to throw himself fully and passionately into the business of bettering and saving lives. He also wants to get involved in medical education, and helping people of all backgrounds be trained the best they can be.
First up is Match Day on March 18 – a moment in time where he and thousands of other doctors-to-be will find out where they are going for their residency training. It’s something Torres is rather philosophical about. It has prompted him to reflect on how his grandparents came from Puerto Rico and laid the foundations for his success at a medical school in the 21st century.
“I have no control over the process – but I’m going to go to the best place I can for me, and I’m going to hope for the best,” he said. “Some people really stress out about it. But the whole process is so out of my control after the interviews and I’m happy to just be going through the process.
“I got some interviews at some prestigious universities that I never thought I’d have a chance at, as a kid coming from Elizabeth, New Jersey,” he said.