Thomas Dowlearn stands outside of Texas A&M College of Medicine.

Becoming fluent: Using language to change medicine

Thomas Dowlearn learns the languages of medicine, business and Spanish to help patients
October 1, 2018

Learning a new language opens doors to communicate with new people, in ways you never could before. This is certainly the case for one Texas A&M College of Medicine student, Thomas Dowlearn, who’s learning the languages of medicine, business and Spanish.

Dowlearn sees language a little differently than most. He’s becoming fluent in how to speak within the field of medicine to communicate with fellow physicians and with patients. With a bachelor’s in business and an MBA under his belt, he’s pretty well versed in business, too. But he’s adding Spanish to his repertoire as well.

“I’m not sure why, but the idea of combining these three approaches to language and ideas just fits for me,” Dowlearn said. “Each helps me relate to more people, gain more perspectives and understand more people.”

The language of medicine

When Thomas was in high school at St. Thomas High School, in Houston, Texas, he loved sports. His junior year, he was playing basketball when he started to get a tingling feeling in his leg.

It kept getting worse. Pretty quickly it became painful just to walk or sit down. He even began sitting on a doughnut cushion in his classes to try to relieve the pressure. After an MRI, he was diagnosed with a herniated disk in his lower back. Dowlearn had to quit playing sports.

After a few months of physical therapy, he found no relief, and his physicians opted for surgery to repair the disk.

“When I woke up from surgery, the pain was gone—almost completely,” Dowlearn said. “I thought to myself, ‘This is amazing! I want to transform people’s lives like this too.’”

That surgery tangibly set in Dowlearn’s mind the ability of medicine to change a person’s life and  to restore a sense of normalcy for those who are suffering.

So he began to shadow Dr. Ross Reul, a heart surgeon, who was also a family friend, at the Texas Heart Institute.

“I was fascinated by what could be done for people. After seeing the first triple bypass procedure, I was hooked,” Dowlearn added. “I want to help people get back to living a normal and productive life through medicine.”

The language of business

After high school, Dowlearn went to Austin to study business at the University of Texas. It might seem like an odd choice for a guy who just fell in love with medicine and was dedicated to being a physician. But as he says, it’s just another language he wanted to learn.

“I went into business school because, first, I wanted a safety plan for my career. But the real reason was that I knew to be a good physician, I would need to know how to manage the business end of medicine. That way I can better treat patients and impact even more lives,” Dowlearn said.

Quite simply, Dowlearn wants to help make the business of medicine better. He wants physicians to practice in a way that makes sense and improves the experience of the health customer: the patient.

“Health care is an immensely complex system, care is extremely expensive, and there are  many opportunities to improve the system,” Dowlearn said. “I want to try to improve it, and my passion for doing so grows more and more each day.”

Dowlearn came to Texas A&M for medical school because of the five year “MD Plus” degree program that allows Texas A&M medical students to combine their medical degrees with a master’s degree at another college at the university. In Dowlearn’s case, he was able to add his MBA to his MD in just a year.

“The way I see it, business is just another language to help me take care of people,” Dowlearn said. “There’s a human and a business case for changing health care to be more of a long-term-focused system. At the end of the day, if we can improve prevention, we can reduce the cost and make it more profitable. This makes health care better for everyone.”

The language of Spanish

Dowlearn fell in love with Spanish in high school. He attended a private Catholic school, where Father Jack Hanna, the priest who taught Spanish, did more than just get students to understand vocabulary.

“The way he approached the language made me passionate about the culture, not just the language,” Dowlearn explained. “I’m doing everything I can to be prepared to be there for Spanish speaking patients.”

He’s taking advanced Spanish classes at Texas A&M and medical Spanish is part of the Texas A&M College of Medicine’s elective curriculum. He is learning how to examine patients in Spanish and how to ask the best questions to help find a diagnosis.

“The emphasis on family and community in Latino culture really connects with me,” Dowlearn said. “I think being fluent in Spanish is one of the best ways to make an impact in medicine in Texas.”

During a mission trip to Colombia, that connection to Spanish-speaking cultures was solidified.

“I couldn’t carry on the conversations I wanted to have with these people who needed our help,” Dowlearn explained. “I knew that if I could learn more, I could understand more and actually help these people who need it most.”

The language of children

“If you can say to a child, ‘Let’s look for butterflies in your ears’ instead of saying ‘hold still’ –you’ll be able to connect with a child and reduce stress, and hopefully get to the bottom of why a child is in pain or sick,” Dowlearn said.

Dowlearn is in his second year of medical school and is leaning toward pediatrics and says he hasn’t ruled out cardiovascular pediatrics.

“There’s just something about helping a child get better,” Dowlearn explained. “But here, too, you need to grasp the understanding of a different language—the language of kids.”

Dowlearn’s passion for pediatrics developed when he volunteered at Dell Children’s Medical Center and during the mission trip to Colombia. He learned quickly that he had to communicate solutions to the parents. “If you’re not educating and convincing the parents, then the kids don’t get the treatment they need or form important healthy habits.”

He says that helping the families of Texas, through this compilation of different languages, seems like the key to success for his future. “If I can bring this all together, to look at things in new ways and be able to explain things in ways people really understand—I feel like I can make a difference.” In fact, one of the ways he’s trying to make that difference today is through his role in co-creating SHIFT Competition, the first ever Texas-wide medical school case competition. SHIFT was held this past weekend at Texas A&M College of Medicine and brought together seven of Texas’ medical schools to discuss innovative solutions to healthcare challenges facing rural Texans.


— Katherine Hancock

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