A moral obligation
If you run into Luis Seija, you probably won’t forget it. From his eclectic inventory of printed shirts, staple Converse high tops and a carefully placed stethoscope, he knows how to capture your attention. He’s energetic and confident, and he carries an undeniable sense of purpose wherever he goes.
This purpose is the same reason he’s a medical student at the Texas A&M College of Medicine: he isn’t very good at listening to the word “no,” nor is he comfortable with accepting things for the way they are. And he’ll tell you that.
Seija believes that everyone should have access to good health care – especially the marginalized. It is part of the reason he’s dedicated to opening the door to health care for as many people as he can.
When Seija was a kid growing up in Austin, Texas, he was sick. He was sick a lot. And he missed a lot of school because of it, making school even more difficult. In addition, he was one of just a few minority students enrolled at an affluent, predominantly Caucasian school.
“I always felt out of place,” Seija said. “I was the fatherless George Lopez look-alike, the center of immigrant jokes and recipient of unsolicited advice and condescension about my place in the world.”
Seija comes from a single parent household. His mother, a librarian and former teacher, juggled two jobs to support her family. And as an older mom, she cherished every moment with her “miracle babies.”
“We were her whole world. We loved her, but she loved harder,” Seija said. “But more than that, she made it known the future she was working for in the present wasn’t necessarily for her or for us, but everyone like us to come.”
Seija’s path to medicine
“Growing up, it was just us, the three musketeers,” Seija said. “We were basically glued together, but in a healthy way. Even though we didn’t have much besides each other, my mom made sure we gave back. No matter what, there was always something to give back.”
Sickness remained a constant companion for Seija through adolescence. He experienced a gauntlet of procedures, hospitalizations and office visits, plagued by both infectious and noncommunicable ailments.
His pediatrician, Joanne Edoka, MD, was there through it all, and became more than just a physician for him – she became an advocate for making his life better.
“We needed someone to tell us that it’s going to be okay, that you’re not just another patient, you’re my patient,” Seija said. She was someone that not only supported his needs, but also those of his family, especially his mother.
Seija’s pediatrician continued to see him until he was 18 and matriculated at the University of Texas at Austin under a full scholarship for music.
As an undergraduate, he began to find his voice for others working on advocacy initiatives and projects to assist marginalized populations through health education and outreach programs.
Seija promoted health literacy on and off campus, such as translating and producing Spanish-language materials on birth control and emergency contraception.
Eventually the ability to help people started to sound better than the sweet notes of music, so Seija changed his major to biochemistry and thus his journey to medical school.
But it wasn’t easy. He took the MCAT five times. As mentioned, he just isn’t terribly good at listening to “no.”
You wouldn’t think such a thing would get you noticed by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), but it did.
Turns out the AAMC saw it as tenacious and resilient. They asked him to share his stories on the MCAT process to inspire others—to help them find their way to and through medical school.
Advocating through policy & leadership
The voice that Seija found for helping others is now being heard across Texas and the United States. He serves in leadership positions within the Texas Medical Association, American Medical Association (AMA) and American Academy of Pediatrics.
He represents the interests and concerns of medical students, but also underrepresented and minority populations.
During the 2016 AMA Interim Meeting, Seija advocated for the elimination of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) current blood donor deferral criteria as it relates to men who have sex with men.
He argued for consideration of more evidence-based screening protocols, such as an individual risk assessment, rather than a complete ban on an entire group, which he believed was discriminatory. The adoption of his policy resulted in the AMA drafting a letter to the FDA, asking for a fair, consistent donor standard, citing Seija’s resolution as a reference.
By advocating for health equity through policy, he has tackled issues as diverse as those he aims to serve, including increasing the accessibility of diapers and feminine hygiene products via tax exemptions as well as organ transplant discrimination, among others.
“My involvement in organized medicine has been one of the most formative experiences in medical school, and a testament to the impact one can have, even as a medical student,” Seija said.
But these national and state platforms aren’t his only focus. He also hones in on the needs of his local community.
During his first year of medical he began volunteering in medical clinics. Seija regularly volunteered at Health For All, a free medical clinic in Bryan for low-income patients of the Brazos Valley, and he continues to volunteer with Feed My Sheep, a free, pediatric mobile clinic that serves rural children of Central Texas; and Martha’s Clinic, Texas A&M College of Medicine’s affiliated student-run free clinic in Temple, Texas.
In Fall 2017, he spearheaded the Aggie Health Project: Hepatitis C, which provides hepatitis C screenings at Martha’s Clinic. The project raised over $8,000 to implement and facilitate the program by applying and securing multiple community service grants. For patients who screen positive, a partnership with the Department of Gastroenterology at Scott & White Medical Center–Temple was established, creating opportunities for care and cure. This is the first program of its kind.
“These patients are looking to take ownership in their health, just like everyone else. They’re looking for someone like my pediatrician, who believed one’s health is a priority, regardless of their circumstances,” he said.
During his pediatric clerkship, Seija was assigned an outpatient rotation at a clinic in Waco whose patient panel primarily consisted of the underserved and uninsured.
“There were many single parent families that resembled my own, even some boys named Luis. Moreover, they epitomized the hard-working folk that enriched my upbringing and those I set out to help. It took one well child check to cement that what I was doing, the path that I was on, was the right one for me,” Seija said.
Seija believes that physicians must understand the patient’s community to anticipate their needs and provide meaningful interventions, medical or otherwise, to overcome structural barriers to health that transcend the context of a patient encounter. To truly engage individuals and communities, to see them thrive, physicians must listen.
“I am my mother’s son. One of the things she always instilled in my sister and me was an adherence to a social contract, a moral obligation to take care of others,” Seija said.
“Fulfilling this contractual obligation has manifested in several ways, but most effectively as recognizing the intrinsic value of storytelling and embracing the narratives of others. Learning to listen and respond with compassion translates to patient empowerment and the discovery of their own voice as was once done for me,” Seija said.
“My ultimate goal is to care for children and families with special needs and disabilities in the same nurturing and attentive manner mine received. I want them to leave our visit with assurance in their health and the ability to tell their own story.”