‘Life is bigger than any single person’ From Guatemala and North Africa to East Oakland and Los Angeles, Theresa Loya (M.D. ’76) has worked throughout her life to support health for the underserved.
Theresa Loya, M.D., M.P.H., F.C.A.P. (M.D. ’76) was prepared for some culture shock at her first Peace Corps assignment, a busy tuberculosis sanitarium in a part of North Africa where the disease was running rampant.
When she arrived at Hospital Sidi Said in Meknes, Morocco, conditions there gave her a jolt.
Loya, assigned to perform laboratory work, quickly realized the hospital had no disinfectant for cleaning instruments or work spaces.
“I was not a trained lab technician, but I had enough training to realize I was jeopardizing my health by working without disinfectant,” she recalled. “I called the Peace Corps office and explained the situation. I didn’t get much sympathy!”
So Loya put down her tools and sent a formal letter to the hospital and Peace Corps administrators, noting that local residents already working in the lab were in danger, too. The missive caused a stir within the country’s health ministry, she said — but also resulted in its hospitals getting their first large supply of disinfectant.
From Morocco to Central America and from East Oakland to Los Angeles, the board certified internist and board certified pathologist has spent a significant part of her career working both directly and indirectly to support health for underserved people.
“I think it stems from my upbringing and my religious beliefs,” said Loya, a pathologist at the Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Medical Center, part of Los Angeles County’s health services system. “My parents taught their children to respect all life and to cherish and respect our environment.”
‘Great and unnecessary suffering’
Loya’s time in North Africa helped sharpen that worldview. When not at work she poured over books by Victor Hugo, Einstein and Steinbeck and philosophers like Thoreau, Montesquieu and Confucius. “I learned that life is bigger than any single person, and the evolution of humanity stems from great minds and people who are willing to see beyond their own selfish needs,” she said. “I saw great and unnecessary suffering all around me, and resolved to do what I could in my life to help alleviate it.”
She returned to earn a bachelor’s degree in social welfare at UC Berkeley during the Sixties, where she joined a student strike for an ethnic studies program and helped launch the free La Clínica de la Raza in East Oakland.
Loya was interested in medicine, but pursued a master’s in public health and only dabbled in premed classes; as the first member of her family to attend college, she worried she would perform poorly. She was delighted to be proven wrong, and went on to earn an M.D. from UC Davis, later practicing pathology and teaching at the Martin Luther King Jr./Charles R. Drew University teaching hospital. She became a clinical assistant professor at Drew and a clinical associate professor of pathology at the affiliated UCLA hospital.
‘I still remember the relief on their faces’
Loya, her son and her husband spent the year after her internship on his family’s coffee farm in Guatemala, where natural beauty and wildlife were abundant. Unfortunately health services were not, and she began serving local patients there at what grew into an impromptu clinic and lab.
“By the end of the year I had people coming to the house every day of the week,” she said. “When I would awaken in the morning, there would already be a line of people waiting to see me.”
A few years after returning to America, Loya learned that a close Guatemalan friend and mother of four had died of cervical cancer at just 42 years old. Loya went on a quest to understand the disease’s burden in underserved populations, and learned it was that nation’s leading cause of cancer deaths among women under 50.
She began working with others to design and launch a cervical cancer program. Based on the family farm and supported by the Gates Foundation, American Cancer Society, International Rotary and coffee companies, it screened 500 women over five days and trained local providers and residents to continue testing and educating the community on their own.
Several years later, almost all of Loya’s volunteers joined her again for a similar campaign in Belize. The group also conducted research, comparing conventional Pap stain to visual cervical inspection with acetic acid, and also conducting HPV testing to help determine if serotypes causing cervical dysplasia/cancer in Belize were the same as those in the U.S.
“I’ve worn many hats in my career, but I’m most proud of the campaigns,” she said. “In Guatemala, we were able to educate and screen more than 5,000 women over five years, and educated many men about the disease as well.
“I still remember the relief on the faces of the women as they were told their Pap smears were normal. But most of all I still remember the smile of Naya, my friend who died of cervical cancer at the prime of her life.”