"I would hear people say, 'someone passed from being poor.' The truth was very upsetting to me." - Sheyla Zelaya Aragon, MD.
Sheyla Zelaya Aragon, MD, was recently installed as president of Lake-Sumter Medical Society. By itself, that's not huge news. But based on her journey from war-torn Nicaragua amid political changes to leader of the local medical society is very much newsworthy.
North Florida Medical News asked Aragon what it was like growing up in Nicaragua, her adolescence filled with community medical mission work, her sometimes-difficult road to medical education completion, and how she landed in Leesburg.
NFMN: Tell us how growing up in Nicaragua impacted your interest in pursuing the practice of medicine.
SZA: Growing up in Nicaragua was key for me to realize I wanted to be a physician. I was raised in a rural town with little access to healthcare. The community health center had only an on-call nurse and a physician who was a sixth-year medical student fulfilling social medical service to graduate. Emergencies were transferred to the next hospital, which was 21 kilometers (13 miles) away.
Instead, folk medicine was practiced in my hometown. Interestingly, a lady who owns a local general store would dispense medical advice and sell over-the-counter medications - plus or minus available antibiotics. When anyone spoke of feeling ill, even my father would say, 'see what the general store owner can offer you.' Living there facilitated benign advice. When their illness didn't improve, they were rushed to the community health center and then the hospital when it became a life-threatening emergency.
NFMN: Even though you moved to the U.S. when you were a toddler, your family returned to Nicaragua after the revolution. Tell us about living in both worlds.
SZA: In the 1980s, I translated for my mom at doctors' appointments in Florida at Jackson Memorial Hospital. After the revolution at the beginning of the 1990s, my family returned as the country was putting itself back together.
Throughout my adolescence, I was exposed to both worlds and noticed the great need for medical professionals in Nicaragua. My vacation and spare time was spent rebuilding schools, buying books and distributing educational material and supplies. I participated with my church on health trips, where volunteer physicians and dentists visited our rural areas to provide services. But medicine was always scarce. For me to get up-to-date medical literature, I purchased books from the U.S. Those experiences shaped me to pursue the practice of medicine as my passion.
NFMN: As a young student, which discoveries stood out the most?
SZA: I saw first-hand how many diseases could be prevented with safe and clean water, and how many deaths could be prevented with access to healthcare and medicine. I would hear people say, 'someone passed from being poor.' The truth was very upsetting to me.
NFMN: Tell us about your medical education and decision to specialize in internal medicine, and subspecialize in nephrology?
SZA: By the time I decided to pursue medical school, I wasn't sure between pediatrics versus internal medicine until my third year in medical school with direct patient care. I enjoyed my internal medicine rotations. Then, it wasn't until I came to the U.S. through the William Harrington Program at Jackson Memorial Hospital at the University of Miami that I fell in love with nephrology. My first classes focused on podcytes, glomerular diseases and dialysis. My Nicaraguan education hadn't taught me in depth the biochemistry of electrolyte disorders and nephrology research. Nicaragua had one or two nephrologists that had studied abroad. Once again, the monetary barrier for dialysis wasn't an option. The lifechanging event that made me realize I was meant to be a nephrologist occurred when a family member ended up in end stage renal disease. Unfortunately, he passed.
NFMN: What brought you to the Leesburg area and why did you choose to open a clinic?
SZA: I was idealistic. I wanted to create a bridge between the U.S. and Nicaragua to share medical knowledge. As I engaged with my studies for the U.S. medical license and ECFMG certification, much was changing in Nicaragua. Unfortunately, in 2007, political parties changed. Once I secured my medical residency in the U.S., the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health made it almost impossible for me to train until last-minute permission was granted to continue my education in the U.S.
During my residency and fellowship years, returning to visit family in Nicaragua was becoming most uncomfortable with Nicaraguan immigration. That's when I decided to pursue my medical career in the U.S. I ended up in Central Florida through the Conrad 30 Program that permits foreign medical graduates to work in underserved medical areas and offer healthcare to our most needed communities. I realized that no matter where I am, I can still do what I love with a purpose. There's no better place than in this beautiful rural community where I have been welcomed. If you look at the statistics, we have poverty, illiteracy and social challenges to overcome.
NFMN: Can you share insight into the challenges of opening a practice as a young physician?
SZA: During the process of opening a practice, I wished for instructions. Not all the answers were available through Google searches.
The greatest help came from engaging with community doctors. Unfortunately, one of the things I figured out on my own was that one medical provider is offered a standard fee schedule from the insurance companies. I realized that collaborating with other providers is equivalent to strength and gives young physicians like me the chance to succeed.
(Aragon has hospital affiliations with Advent Health at Waterman, Central Florida Health Alliance: LRMC and TVRH, and Select Hospital: Promise at the Villages.)
NFMN: You were recently inducted as president of the Lake-Sumter Medical Society. What has moved you to become so involved in the medical community, and what are your goals and hopes during this two-year commitment?
SZA: My inspiration to open a practice came from doctors in the community that I met through the Lake Sumter Medical Society. Patients are my motivation. My hope is that through the experience of our members, we can identify more potential physician members, including young physicians.
Nonmembers who have questions or need advice are free to call us. We'll direct you to the best person. Our goal is your success!
NFMN: What else makes Central Florida special?
SZA: Something very special that made Central Florida my home is that I'm close to my siblings and their children. They visit from the north, south, east and west of the state. We're ensuring our future generations will see the importance of being raised with a sense of community and togetherness.