Solidarity in California’s heartland A UC Davis medical student’s mentor in rural medicine is the alumnus physician who delivered him three decades ago
Fabián Alberto’s earliest memories involve waking up in the back of his mother’s Ford Capri and climbing out to find her plucking garlic from the earth.
As the son of farm workers in California’s Salinas Valley, he grew to know the meaning of inner strength and endurance early on, as well as the value of a tight-knit community. The farm that Alberto’s family lived on just outside Soledad was his place of both residence and work, and he spent long summer days toiling alongside his brother on irrigation systems to help make ends meet.
When Alberto’s parents were still new to the area and expecting their son, community members had referred them to a local physician by the name of Bruce Greenberg. Greenberg, who like many rural family practice doctors counts obstetrics among an expansive range of duties, brought Alberto into the world at Mee Memorial Hospital in nearby King City.
Seeing a physician is a rare luxury for those who depend on daily farm work for income. Alternatively, Alberto’s understanding of medicine as a boy was rooted in his mother’s kitchen. Here, she cooked up remedies to match every malady, including roasted banana peel to soothe sore throats.
This special place of healing sparked his own interest in providing treatment and care.
“I remember aloe vera for a bruise or contusion; a constellation of teas for every sign or symptom,” he recounted. “With all of these interventions there was always a blessing — this idea that ‘I will see you through this, I will take care of you.’”
“For me, that’s what medicine was, and what sparked my curiosity in helping people and using the knowledge we have to make people feel better.”
Years later, the desire to pursue a medical career and the encouragement of his mother led Alberto to reach out to Greenberg for guidance — and the physician who delivered him would also help deliver him into the world of medicine. Greenberg, now a preceptor for one of the UC Davis School of Medicine’s rural-medicine training programs, helped serve as an important mentor and formative role model for Alberto.
A physician with a community calling
Raised in the Bay Area by working-class parents, Greenberg was the first in his family to attend college. After earning a psychology degree from UC Berkeley, he went on to medical school at UC Davis in 1971, a class endearingly nicknamed “The Gorilla Pit” for members’ tendencies towards long hair and informal demeanors.
There he found a mentor in Len Hughes Andrus, founding chair of the UC Davis Department of Family Medicine. Andrus, who grew up in King City, eventually developed one of the largest networks of family practice residencies in the nation and pioneered expansion of medical practices in medically underserved areas of Northern California.
Greenberg, drawn to the idea of working in a rural setting after medical school, had come to the fairly isolated and largely agricultural Salinas Valley area during his residency — and stayed.
“I felt that being able to use my training and work with an underserved population would make the best use of the things I had learned in both medical school and residency, and that would provide for a very satisfying career,” he said.
Beyond the opportunity to apply his medical training to a broad extent, Greenberg has also enjoyed how practicing in a small community unites physician with residents.
“You can become involved in a lot of community events,” he said. “We help to give medical coverage at some of the local sporting events, school events, and so people really see that we are a part of the community. We are not an isolated entity.”
The UC Davis School of Medicine Alumni Association recognized Greenberg’s lifelong work in 2002 with its Humani-tarian of the Year Award, created to recognize outstanding contributions to community through distinguished public service. Today he variously hosts, teaches and mentors UC Davis students like Alberto who come through the area to complete rotations in rural family medicine through UC Davis Rural-PRIME, a companion and complementary training program to one focused in the San Joaquin Valley.
“I got to know Dr. Greenberg better, to know his background — and for him to stay here after residency, and for well over 30 years, really speaks to his commitment to the community here and to people like me growing up here,” Alberto said.
A healer in the making
Barriers of physical isolation, financial limitation and access to social resources contribute to a vacuum of educational opportunity in many rural areas, in the same way they limit health care services. Despite these limitations, Alberto has already achieved at levels far beyond the norms of his community: graduating from UCLA, serving as an AmeriCorps member, and attending UC Davis School of Medicine.
However, even after finding a path beyond Soledad, home was never far from his mind. At UC Davis he joined the San Joaquin Valley PRIME (SJV-PRIME) program, a tailored educational track intended to help increase care for rural populations by preparing future physicians for careers in the medically underserved San Joaquin Valley.
Since there are fewer physicians in rural areas, there is inversely greater opportunity for students to practice the full spectrum of skills taught in medical school; in this way, the program’s rural rotations offer potent preparation for residency. But for Alberto, participating in SJV-PRIME was also a way to bring his medical training full circle, back to communities that were a reflection of his own upbringing.
“Success for me extends to more than just making sure I have a comfortable life,” he said. “Success is really measured in how we provide opportunity to those communities that have seen us succeed.
“By that I mean making sure that we go back to these communities, making sure we provide mentorship to these kids and extend that hand that will get them to the career or path that they need.”
While on rotation in King City recently, working with Greenberg, Fabián drew inspiration for his own philosophy of care.
“One of the things that I really admired about Dr. Greenberg was that if there was something that was pressing a patient, he would take that time to really sit down and connect with them to understand where they were coming from,” he said.
The importance of paying it forward
“Soledad” is Spanish for loneliness, and yet it also alludes to a duality with the concept of solidarity. Both are concepts that Alberto and Greenberg understand as qualities intrinsic to rural communities.
“I’m so pleased and proud that one of the children I delivered who grew up here in this small community has gone on to medical school, especially at UC Davis, which is my alma mater,” Greenberg said. “Very often, people hear that small towns don’t produce good results and that people don’t go far in life when they’ve been born and raised in a rural area.
“Fabián is an excellent example of someone who has achieved and has done very well for himself. I’m so happy and proud that he’s pursued this career.”
For many bright students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, scholarships are instrumental to sustaining basic needs and paying tuition — and Alberto’s merits and achievements have helped him to secure several. He not only feels indebted to these awards — grateful that others chose an investment in him — but he also views them, “as a vehicle to bring change into the community, creating opportunity where it is lacking.”
“In some ways, working with Dr. Greenberg and seeing his example, helped me recognize what I want to do, which is to provide mentorship and be that person that he was for me, and continue in that tradition of showing solidarity with the community where I was born and raised,” he said.
Fabián Alberto graduated UC Davis School of Medicine this year and is doing his surgical residency at the University of New Mexico, with the ultimate goal of returning to his home community to practice — and, even possibly, working alongside Bruce Greenberg again.