Once a youth in trou­ble, now a doc­tor

Newly grad­u­ated UCLA doc­tor turned his trou­bled ado­les­cence around

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Larry Gor­don larry.gor­don@la­times.com

Against all odds, James Ma­ciel turned his life around and grad­u­ated from UCLA’s med­i­cal school at age 33.

Two very dif­fer­ent doc­u­ments de­fine James Ma­ciel’s un­usual life jour­ney.

The older one is a pho­to­copy of his court records from the late ’90s, show­ing ar­rests for graf­fiti van­dal­ism and pos­ses­sion of a hand­gun that landed him in Or­ange County Ju­ve­nile Hall and the Youth Guid­ance Cen­ter for six months. It is an un­happy sou­venir of a teenage phase that could have led to hard-core gang life and all its dan­gers, he said re­cently.

The other doc­u­ment is his new UCLA med­i­cal di­ploma, earned at the rel­a­tively late age of 33 while he and his wife were rais­ing their three chil­dren. The di­ploma is a pass­port to Ma­ciel’s up­com­ing res­i­dency in surgery at Har­bor-UCLA Med­i­cal Cen­ter, the Car­son hos­pi­tal that serves many low-in­come peo­ple and im­mi­grants and is among the busiest in the state in treat­ing gun­shot wounds.

“The peo­ple I lived with and grew up with are the peo­ple I want to take care of. The in­di­gent and the gang mem­bers,” Ma­ciel, who grew up in Santa Ana and now lives in Gar­den Grove, said in an in­ter­view. “It’s just a nat­u­ral fit for me.”

To suc­cess­fully com­plete med­i­cal school at that age, with chil­dren, is un­usual, and to do it af­ter such ado­les­cent trou­bles is “dis­tinctly rare,” said Chris­tian de Vir­gilio, a pro­fes­sor of surgery at UCLA’s David Gef­fen School of Medicine and in­terim chair of surgery at Har­bor-UCLA.

He said that Ma­ciel has been a ma­ture role model for younger med­i­cal stu­dents and has shown spe­cial in­ter­est in and com­pas­sion for vic­tims of vi­o­lence and other trauma. He cited a study pub­lished re­cently in the An­nals of Vas­cu­lar Surgery, for which Ma­ciel was the lead au­thor, about how mas­sive trans­fu­sions help gun­shot and car ac­ci­dent vic­tims sur­vive dev­as­tat­ing in­juries to their ab­dom­i­nal aorta.

Ma­ciel cred­its much of his suc­cess to his wife, Priscilla, with whom he had their first child when he was 18 and she was 17. She later got him to leave his tag­ging crew. His em­brace of a strong Chris­tian faith helped as well, he said. He also ac­knowl­edges men­tors at Or­ange Coast Col­lege, where he re­dis­cov­ered a love of science; UC Irvine, where he earned a bach­e­lor’s in bi­ol­ogy; and UCLA’s med school.

Asked about ad­vis­ing teens in detention to­day, Ma­ciel said he would tell them: “I was just like you. I know what you are go­ing through. I know you think you’ve made mis­takes that are ir­repara­ble and un­for­giv­able. But you need to re­al­ize you are your own worst en­emy by your own self­doubt and be­liev­ing peo­ple who tell you that you are go­ing up to end up dead or home­less, or in jail or crazy or on drugs. You have to re­al­ize there is a way out.”

The son of Mex­i­can im­mi­grants, Ma­ciel was ini­tially a good stu­dent, at­tend­ing a pro­gram for the gifted. But at Sad­dle­back High School in Santa Ana, he fell in with a tag­ging crew, was re­peat­edly busted for graf­fiti and placed in court-or­dered cleanup groups. He was ex­pelled from two schools and dropped out of a third. The 1998 hand­gun pos­ses­sion charge, doc­u­mented in pa­pers he still has, led to the 180-day detention; he said he never fired the gun at any­one or used it to threaten any­one.

An old photo, he notes with cha­grin, shows him wear­ing the detention uni­form but in a gang­banger pose, chest pumped out and a smirk on his face. Ma­ciel de­clined to dis­close his tag­ger name, say­ing “that per­son doesn’t ex­ist any­more.”

Mona Ruiz, a now-re­tired Santa Ana po­lice de­tec­tive who ran an anti-graf­fiti and gang di­ver­sion pro­gram, re­called Ma­ciel as “a sharp and very out­go­ing kid” who skirted more se­ri­ous trou­ble. She de­scribed him as a tag­ger, not a hard-core gang­banger, who “liked push­ing the limit as long as he didn’t get caught.”

She lost con­tact with him af­ter he was sent to detention but said she was de­lighted to learn from a Times re­porter about his ca­reer. “I’m al­ways happy when I hear that a ju­vie who was in our pro­gram picks him­self up and is suc­cess­ful,” she said, adding that Ma­ciel might have fol­lowed other teens who died in shoot­ings and drug over­doses.

While in the lockup fa­cil­i­ties, Ma­ciel re­al­ized that “I was get­ting tired of get­ting in trou­ble, and I was caus­ing a lot of pain to peo­ple.” Af­ter his re­lease, he earned his high school de­gree at an al­ter­na­tive school and got a job at a sign-paint­ing fac­tory where his fa­ther worked. Father­hood pushed him to think about his fu­ture, and his par­ents pro­vided a role model for hard work, he said. A few years later, while work­ing as a school cus­to­dian, he en­rolled in com­mu­nity col­lege, as did his wife.

That be­gan a long dozen years of higher ed­u­ca­tion, with fi­nan­cial help from fam­ily, gov­ern­ment as­sis­tance pro­grams, schol­ar­ships, stu­dent loans and part-time jobs.

Af­ter UC Irvine, Ma­ciel was ac­cepted by the UCLA med­i­cal school’s PRIME pro­gram, which re­cruits fu­ture doc­tors to work with un­der­served and low-in­come com­mu­ni­ties. The pro­gram adds a fifth year by re­quir­ing stu­dents to also earn a re­lated mas­ter’s de­gree — in public health in Ma­ciel’s case.

(Med school runs in the fam­ily. Ma­ciel’s older brother at­tended med­i­cal school in Mex­ico, although he does not prac­tice in the U.S. A younger brother is in the class be­hind Ma­ciel at UCLA’s med­i­cal school.)

PRIME Ex­ec­u­tive Direc­tor Lawrence “Hy” Doyle said Ma­ciel was cho­sen for one of 18 slots from 850 ap­pli­cants in part be­cause “what in­trigued us was that he was able to over­come so much.” Ma­ciel’s fam­ily re­spon­si­bil­i­ties also gave him “a fo­cus in a way that many other med­i­cal stu­dents don’t have,” Doyle said.

As part of his UCLA hos­pi­tal du­ties, Ma­ciel re­cently ex­am­ined a woman in her early 30s who de­scribed ab­dom­i­nal pain that she thought might be re­lated to the un­usual place­ment of some in­ter­nal or­gans since birth. With the woman’s hus­band and in­fant son in the exam room, Ma­ciel took her his­tory to pass on to se­nior physi­cians and made sure she did not need emer­gency care.

On his way out, he urged the cou­ple to con­tact him if their older chil­dren had ques­tions about ap­ply­ing to col­lege or study­ing medicine. The cou­ple, Aurora and Hec­tor Franco of El Monte, said they ap­pre­ci­ated the ex­tra at­ten­tion.

The next day, about 35 friends and rel­a­tives, in­clud­ing Ma­ciel’s two sons, 15 and 14, and daugh­ter, 6, at­tended his grad­u­a­tion and a cel­e­bra­tory din­ner at a West­wood seafood restau­rant. Priscilla, who earned her bach­e­lor’s de­gree at Cal State Fuller­ton and works as a benefits el­i­gi­bil­ity tech­ni­cian, said the cou­ple’s early life to­gether now “seems like a dif­fer­ent story about dif­fer­ent peo­ple.”

While it was hard to keep the end goals in sight, they tried to “stay fo­cused” through the dif­fi­cult jug­gling of ed­u­ca­tion and par­ent­hood, she said.

Now their sons want to be­come doc­tors. “I tell them to go for what­ever it is they want to do,” she said.

‘The peo­ple I lived with and grew up with are the peo­ple I want to take care of. The … gang mem­bers.’

— James Ma­ciel

Bar­bara David­son L.A. Times

Bar­bara David­son Los An­ge­les Times


ex­am­ines Aurora Franco as her hus­band and son wait in the exam room at Har­bor-UCLA Med­i­cal Cen­ter.

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