Providing Better Health Care to the Underrepresented

Raul Vazquez, MD ’89, physician and health care executive serving Buffalo’s inner city

The support he received to attend UB, and a subsequent tuition waiver, influenced Raul and Toni Vazquez to give back to other medical students.

Raul Vazquez, MD, founder and chief executive officer of a health care network that serves 14,000 inner-city patients in Western New York, remembers how UB gave him a leg up when he was struggling to make ends meet in medical school back in 1985. “They gave me $37,000,” he says. “Everything was paid for, and that gave me the opportunity.”

That scholarship from UB, and a subsequent tuition waiver, had a huge influence on Vazquez.

“The reasons I do what I do are kind of related to getting that opportunity, to try to give back,” he adds.

Hence the $250,000 Vazquez Family Medical Student Scholarship Fund, endowed by Vazquez and his wife, Toni Vazquez, BA ’91, who is an officer of the health care network as well as a member of several boards of directors in the region. The scholarship assists historically underrepresented students at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences who intend to practice in primary care within New York State.

Vazquez says the scholarship, which will go to a third- or fourth-year student, is aimed at getting the recipient to go “back in the community. Because I know if they’re Black or Brown or Native and they do family practice, they’re going to go into these communities.”

Vazquez, 59, knows what he’s talking about when it comes to serving the medical needs of the inner city. He was raised in a housing project in the South Bronx.

“I know if they’re Black or Brown or Native and they do family practice, they’re going to go into these communities."

- Raul Vazquez

“I grew up with domestic violence,” he says. “Early on in my life, when things would get bad between my mom and my stepdad, my mom would just take off. We’d be on Eastern Airlines or Pan Am and I’d be in my pajamas flying back to Puerto Rico. We’d stay in my grandmother’s house.”

Vazquez bounced around between houses and schools in the South Bronx; Puerto Rico; Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; and New Haven, Connecticut. He did manage to spend all four years of high school in the South Bronx, by which time the neighborhood was literally in flames as landlords seeking insurance payments torched building after building amid the economic collapse of the city.

Still, Vazquez excelled academically. After working his way through Fordham in his home borough by driving cabs and stocking bodega shelves, he applied to 13 medical schools, getting into 12. Why did he choose Buffalo?

“One of my friends from Fordham went to the interview at UB,” he remembered, “and she said, ‘Man, you gotta go to UB.’ I’m from the Bronx, I didn’t know anything about Buffalo—I thought it was like Alaska.” He flew to Buffalo and was impressed with UB. “It was the No. 1 state school, a lot of kids coming here from different schools, Harvard, Yale, because of the cost. I turned my other offers away, and I came up to Buffalo.”

After finishing medical school in 1989, Vazquez became an ER doctor in Buffalo. “I always wanted to be a doctor,” he says, but it was his experience as a youth with his uncle that really convinced him. “My uncle was really my mentor. He only had a third-grade education, but he taught me the business side of things.” Accompanying his uncle on visits to the ER for severe asthma, Vazquez, who served as the interpreter, was often frustrated at the inability of health care practitioners to understand his uncle’s Spanish. “Even today,” he observed, “people who go to [local facilities] will say, ‘Tengo dolor en el pecho,’ and no one will understand that you have chest pain.”

Influenced by such experiences, Vazquez vowed to create a better care environment for the underserved. He founded the Greater Buffalo United Accountable Healthcare Network in 1996 and Urban Family Practice in 2003—the region’s first state-of-the-art inner-city medical private practices with locations at Niagara Street, Main Street and Jefferson Avenue.

Raul and Toni live in Williamsville and have four children, including two daughters currently in medical school who hope to go into family practice. That would be carrying on a family tradition that began with Toni’s father, the late civil rights leader William Gaiter, former director of the activist Black federation of religious and community groups BUILD; and with Raul’s commitment from his days in the South Bronx, when he promised to do good “by becoming a doctor for misunderstood and underrepresented people.”

Story by Jeff Z. Klein
Photograph Provided by Raul Vazquez

 

Panorama Hispano is the regional news and information newspaper for Hispanic and other diverse communities.

US Hispanics are now the largest ethnic minority in the United States numbering 54.2 million as of July 2014. Serving: Buffalo, Rochester, Fredonia, Niagara Falls, NY and Erie, PA. Outside our Market area: Visit our affiliate at: http://www.impremedia.com/

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