“Serving in My Community is an Honor”
TouroCOM Harlem’s Student DO of the Year Is OMS IV Hector Zelaya
As a child growing up in Long Island, OMS IV Hector Zelaya noticed a specific dynamic whenever he or his siblings needed to visit the doctor.
“For underrepresented communities, medicine is always a big issue for several different reasons—whether it’s cultural barriers, language barriers or ease of access,” recalled Zelaya, who is TouroCOM Harlem’s 2020 Student DO of the Year. “The doctors weren’t individuals who looked like me. The people who worked at the front desk looked like me. As an eight-year-old, I remember having to translate what the doctor told my parents.”
Those experiences helped Zelaya to choose his specialty.
“During my rotations, I went into a room with a pediatric patient and saw that the child related to me because I looked like him. It triggered something in me and reminded me of my own experiences,” explained Zelaya who will be pursuing his pediatric residency at NYU Winthrop next year. “As a pediatrician, I can introduce myself to a Latino family and speak a language they understand and see that they are comfortable. I can see where they’re coming from—and not just Latino families, but anyone from an underrepresented group shares certain experiences. As a pediatrician, I can help people, not just the child, but the whole family. Even though I don’t treat adults, I can be used as a resource.”
Zelaya’s success and commitment stems from his family history. His parents emigrated to the US to flee the brutal civil war that engulfed El Salvador. The two settled in Nassau Country; Zelaya’s mother worked as a cleaning person while his father worked on a factory floor. When the two realized that their local public school had a poor reputation, they took on extra shifts and saved to send their children to private school.
“Knowing where my parents came from and the struggles they endured has dictated where I am and where I want to be,” said Zelaya who discovered a love for medicine early on. “They arrived in the US with nothing and worked hard to create a life for us.”
Zelaya attended Binghamton University and graduated with a major in biological anthropology. Zelaya was accepted into TouroCOM Harlem’s Master of Science Program in Interdisciplinary Studies in Biological and Physical Sciences and matriculated into the DO program.
“The program prepped me for my first year of medical school,” said Zelaya. “Going to Touro was incredible and was exactly what I wanted out of med school.”
During his time at TouroCOM, he held several roles in the Student Osteopathic Medical Association (SOMA). Zelaya began as the national liaison for the school’s chapter; he took his position further and became the organizations director of financial affairs and then the treasurer and chairperson of the organization’s foundation. In that position, he gave grants and stipends to fellow students to attend conferences, lectures and to travel for research opportunities. “I remember when I received a grant from SOMA to attend a conference and I was so grateful,” said Zelaya. “I know what it’s like to need and get a grant, so being able to give back meant a lot.”
Zelaya also participated in various other extracurriculars including volunteering in the Philippines with the Federation for International Medical Relief for Children and working as a student ambassador for TouroCOM. Zelaya was also active with several other groups including the student-led COMPASS (Creating Osteopathic Minority Physicians who Achieve Scholastic Success) organization.
“I really enjoyed my time at TouroCOM,” Zelaya explained. “I will always be close to the people I met here, not just my friends, but the faculty and administration. I have personal phone numbers to administrators and faculty members. I just called one person from the office since it’s her birthday. At TouroCOM you have one-on-one relationships so there’s a sense of family and community. That was the best part of my experience at TouroCOM.”
In addition to being named Student DO of the Year, Zelaya also celebrated matching to his top choice for his residency.
“When I found out that I matched in my top choice hospital words failed me,” said Zelaya who is also considering a second residency in pediatric emergency medicine. “I grew up on Long Island and my family lives there. They’re everything to me. To serve in the community I grew up in is such an honor.”