Rafael Garcia-Cortes, MD

Former visiting elective student
Clinical fellow, Department of Internal Medicine, cardiovascular division,
Washington University School of
Medicine

Rafael Garcia-Cortes, MD, (right) speaks with a patient.

Rafael Garcia-Cortes, MD, (right), a cardiovascular clinical fellow, speaks with a patient.

Program helps doctor make move from Puerto Rico to Midwest

It seems like every time Rafael Garcia-Cortes talks to his family in Puerto Rico, they ask him when he’s coming home. As the first doctor in his family, Garcia-Cortes’ decision to come to St. Louis for his residency was a tough one. But he’d heard so many good things about Washington University School of Medicine and its residency training programs that he knew he had to take the plunge and leave his home in Puerto Rico to come to the Midwest.

To test the waters, he participated in Washington University’s Visiting Elective Program, which is held through the Office of Diversity Programs. The program sponsors underrepresented medical students like Garcia-Cortes to do four-week elective medical rotations at Washington University Medical Center.

“The program allowed me to get to know the hospital and the city,” says Garcia-Cortes, who pursued a four-week Honors in Medicine program at Barnes-Jewish Hospital through the Department of Internal Medicine. “It made me more familiar with the residency program and was one of the main reasons why I ranked Washington University at the top of my list. It’s why I ultimately came here. It had a great impact on my life.”

From engineering to medicine

Growing up, Garcia-Cortes always loved science — particularly how things worked. He studied electrical engineering in undergrad and thought he might pursue a career in biomedical engineering, designing medical devices, such as pacemakers and defibrillators. He had the opportunity to do a one-month internal medicine rotation shadowing residents at his undergraduate institute in Puerto Rico. That’s when he fell in love with medicine. After completing his degree in electrical engineering, he decided to go to medical school in Puerto Rico.

Garcia-Cortes says he has always had an interest in taking care of people, which is why he chose internal medicine as his specialty. He was also fascinated by almost every organ in the body, but one in particular intrigued him most: the heart. Studying cardiology allowed him to concentrate on just one organ and prompted his interest in discovering why this organ sometimes fails.

Garcia-Cortes realized that along with an interest in heart failure he was also attracted to the field of electrophysiology, the study of the electrical activity in the heart – something that draws on his electrical engineering background. As a fellow, he has been working on a retrospective study that involves looking at a left ventricular assist device (LVAD). This short-term use device for heart failure patients is made up of a small internal pump that connects the left ventricle to the aorta to help pump blood from the heart to the rest of the body. The study looks at the interaction between a group of heart failure patients’ medication and their LVAD functionality.

A diverse identity

Throughout his internal medicine residency and now as a cardiovascular disease fellow, diversity has played a key role in Garcia-Cortes’ life. “When I see patients, I am not just a doctor, I am a Hispanic doctor taking care of them,” he says. “I feel like that will never go away, and I am proud of it.”

Whenever Spanish-speaking patients come into the office, Garcia-Cortes is happy to translate. He wants them to know that they are welcome here and that, contrary to what they may think, they can afford the care here — regardless of the medical institution’s high profile as a nationally ranked academic medical center. “No matter what language you speak, we have a very diverse group of individuals here to help,” he says.

Garcia-Cortes also spends time mentoring medical students – including those from underrepresented backgrounds. Several students have spent a week shadowing him as he sees patients.

In addition to helping other students, he has found support from his own mentors. Melvin Blanchard, MD, director of the Internal Medicine Residency program, has had a strong influence on Garcia-Cortes’ career. “I think he’s the best program director in the country. He made me feel right at home – that we were all family,” says Garcia-Cortes.

More than just medicine

In his spare time, Garcia-Cortes likes to write. He has written a fiction novel, published a short story and is completing a book of short stories. He also volunteers at Gateway180, a homeless shelter for women and children who have been victims of domestic violence. Once a month he and some of his colleagues bring dinner to the shelter and talk about health issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure and sexually transmitted diseases.

Garcia-Cortes still misses his family, especially around the holidays or when one of his relatives is ill. But he is also settling in well in St. Louis, making new friends and enjoying the city. He thinks he will probably end up staying here. As he notes: “I always hear people from St. Louis don’t ever leave and I think I know why: it is impossible not fall in love with its people.”