Become a doctor step by step

It’s amazing what you can learn on YouTube.

Because she was taking giant strides down an uncharted and sometimes difficult path—the first in her family to pursue a career in medicine—Brissa Mundo-Santacruz often turned to YouTube for help with things like preparing for the MCAT and applying to the medical faculty for advice.

“I didn’t know anyone who was a medical student or a doctor, so I had to do a lot of research and look for information wherever I could find it,” she says. “I didn’t really know what I was doing, but all I knew was that I wanted to be a doctor.”

As Mundo-Santacruz now prepares for matchday, March 17, where she will learn where she has landed for her residency as a family medicine practitioner, she envisions a career that will not only allow her to develop long-term relationships with patients and to treat the whole person, but this also includes space for mentoring.

“I feel like I want to be someone who represents people in my community and inspires them to pursue their passion,” she says. “If healthcare is something they want to go into and they don’t have anyone in their family that’s in the medical field or has gone through college, I want them to be able to look to people like me and stuff to be, “She made it. If she’s a doctor, then I can be a doctor too.’”

see health differences

Even before she dreamed of becoming a doctor, Mundo-Santacruz saw firsthand how health inequalities can impact underserved communities. Born in Mexico, she saw her family struggle with chronic illnesses before relocating to Loveland, Colorado with her mother.

“My father, for example, always struggled with not wanting to go to the doctor – there is a lot of distrust,” she says. “He has diabetes and high blood pressure, and for the longest time he never went to screening or anything because he just didn’t trust it. He often said, ‘If I don’t go, they can’t tell me something’s wrong.’ That really opened my eyes and I slowly started to put the pieces together as to why these things were happening.”

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However, with all the adjustments of living in a new country, Mundo-Santacruz had to spend more energy adjusting than planning her future. She wasn’t the best student in high school, she admits, and for a while didn’t even think she’d graduate.

“I just wasn’t really interested in what came after,” she recalls. “But I had a really great, amazing advisor, Mr. Cain, who I’m still in touch with, and he supported me through a lot of things that I was going through. He said, “You should just sign up for some college classes,” and he helped me enroll in community college. By the time I graduated from high school, I was like, ‘I already signed up for these classes, I might as well go.’”

Discover the love of learning

Mundo-Santacruz’s time as a student at Front Range Community College was something of a revelation. Suddenly able to personalize her education and study things she loved, she discovered her passion for science and helping people. However, she soon faced the challenges that many first-generation students experience.

“Looking back, I realize how difficult it was to actually learn what pre-med med was, learning that I had to transfer to a four-year university, and all the prerequisites,” she says. “I remember a couple of counselors were like, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?'”

Her mother, while always supportive, had no frame of reference for what Mundo-Santacruz was trying to do. “My mom was a housekeeper at the time and my stepdad was a plumber, so they just weren’t familiar with the process,” she says. “Studying in college is really different than just doing homework, so I explained to my mom why it took me so long to study. But she was always so supportive of me, even if she didn’t know about it.”

Mundo-Santacruz completed her bachelor’s degree in biology at Colorado State University and knew she wanted to go to medical school. She turned to YouTube to learn how, and began blindly calling doctors’ offices to see if she could talk to someone there about a career in medicine.

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She learned about the American Association of Medical Colleges’ Fee Assistance Program, which offers assistance with MCAT and medical school application fees, and submitted about 15 applications. Her first choice was always the University of Colorado School of Medicine, partly because she didn’t want to be too far away from her family and was thrilled when she was accepted.

Brissa Mundo-Santacruz with her husband William Mundo, MD and their daughter Yaretzi.

Adaptation to medical school

Medical school was another new world and once again Mundo-Santacruz took to YouTube for insight into her freshman year.

“It’s definitely like drinking out of a fire hose,” she recalls, laughing. “And it was very humbling. I think a lot of med students are used to being either top of the class or just being the person who has the most together, but suddenly you’re in that group where everyone’s the best of the best. I remember not doing well on my first exams and I was like, ‘What!?’ I’m so used to getting an ace and I thought I did so well on the exam and then I got a 3 and I was just really sad.”

Mundo-Santacruz struggled with imposter syndrome – a sense of not belonging and fear of being spotted as an imposter despite being qualified to be. Most of those feelings stemmed from the lack of representation in medicine, she says, so finding community in her class was imperative for her, “because a lot of us eventually feel that way. At one point I was able to get to a point where I was like, ‘I think that’s okay, I think I get that.'”

She cites enriching patient experiences, including real-world health simulations through the Center for Advancing Professional Excellence, that have helped her realize that she belongs in medical school and the medical field and could make a significant difference in the quality of her patients’ care . She knew the best thing she could do, once again, was work hard and persevere.

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And then the COVID-19 pandemic struck. After finally getting her feet under her feet and familiarizing herself with very dense subjects, Mundo-Santacruz learned to adapt to a new paradigm of online learning. Fortunately, she was able to personally complete some of the experiences she learned the most from, including rotations through various medical specialties. Amidst these rotations, she knew she had found her place in family medicine.

“Are you my doctor?!”

Now, while waiting for her match, Mundo-Santacruz thinks a lot about the career she wants to have. During one of her rotations, she practiced at the Salud Family Health Centers, which serves many underinsured and uninsured patients, as well as many Spanish speaking patients.

“I liked the very wide range of care that is offered there,” she says. “As a provider you are doing everything you can to help a patient as many of these patients are not easily referred to a specialist so try to do as much as possible. I’ve also seen how powerful it is to be a provider who speaks Spanish when I see how much people’s eyes light up when they say, ‘Oh my god, are you my doctor?!’”

Mundo-Santacruz aspires to a career that helps address long-standing health inequities but also supports women in medicine. She and her husband, William Mundo, MD, an emergency medicine physician at Denver Health, had their daughter, Yaretzi Mundo, less than a year ago, so Mundo-Santacruz was not only a woman in medicine, but an underrepresented pregnant woman in medicine.

“I think it’s really important for people to see that this is possible and to be someone that people feel like they can come to for tips or support,” says Mundo-Santacruz . “I know how difficult it is to do all this work on your own when you don’t necessarily have someone to look up to or who you’re comfortable asking questions about, so I want to be that person for others like me.”