Dr. Carmen Flores, an assistant professor of surgery at the UNLV School of Medicine, was 6-years-old when her 3-year-old brother’s finger was crushed in a door and bleeding profusely.
She watched as her mother frantically tried to stop the bleeding. It soon became obvious that nothing she had on hand would actually close the wound.
“My mother and I transported him to our hometown private community hospital where we waited in the lobby for assistance,” says Flores, who earlier this year finished a fellowship in trauma/acute care surgery through the UNLV School of Medicine. “A nurse dressed head-to-toe in white came out to the lobby and asked us if we had medical insurance. The answer was no. We were...told that if we had no insurance, we would get no care in that hospital...we ended up taking him to the county hospital for care, a place much like UMC.”
On that day Flores says she decided to somehow “be a part of the solution to this horrible situation -- and although I didn’t know it at the time, I believe that is when the trauma surgeon in me was born.”
No one can ever say, however, that her career path was laid out like a blueprint.
She grew up in the Harbor Area of Los Angeles, with Compton and South Central LA nearby, where authorities say all three areas still have far more than their share of gang problems. “The Harbor Area is a rough underbelly rural area of LA that requires tough skin to survive, and I was raised to be tough, street smart, and to never take no for an answer,” Flores says. “One of my parents’ many favorite quotes was ‘be a leader, not a follower.’”
A first-generation college student and college graduate, Flores was the daughter of a fifth- generation Mexican-American, a concrete contractor who never finished high school -- a man Flores can never recall coming home from work “not covered in concrete powder.” Her mother, a second generation Costa Rican immigrant, worked as a human resources specialist. She deferred hopes of higher education to support her four brothers and sisters, who lost their mother at an early age.
“Although neither of my parents pursued higher education, they highly valued education and basically told me I would either pursue a university/college career or find a way to support myself with a job and move out on my own when I turned 18...Education was just as important in my home as hard work. We were not raised to be slackers and were inspired to be the absolute best at whatever we put our efforts forth to do. This instilled a competitive spirit in my two younger brothers and I that has never faded away...It is with this upbringing that a rebellious kid like me overcame the lures of gang life, drugs and teenage pregnancy I was surrounded with on a daily basis...I vividly recall being followed to school by my dad or one of our family friends to make sure I wasn’t tempted to be truant…”
It was in high school that Flores realized she truly loved biology.
“I was given the opportunity by Mr. Wooden, my high school counselor, to become involved in a rigorous, summer biology course with Mrs.Turnbull. Although my inner city high school could not afford good specimens, I dissected a frog that summer and my life was changed. I became a scientist that day. My poor lab partner -- she didn’t even have a chance at using the forceps or scalpel...Mr. Wooden saw in me a spark that he continued to fuel throughout high school and he was the first educator to tell me that I could become a physician if I wanted to.”
During her first two years of undergraduate work at UCLA -- she worked nights in the import-export business while pursuing her bachelor’s degree in sociology -- Flores realized that even the advanced placement and honors courses she took at her inner city high school had not prepared her for the necessity of taking thorough notes so information could be reproduced for examinations. “I clearly recall one of my science professors sitting me down and telling me to pursue dentistry because I would never make it to, or through, medical school. And besides, he said, dentists can golf on weekends. I thank God every day for the tenacity passed on to me by my parents, in which I would take words such as this as a challenge to prove people wrong.”