Rewriting History By Following Their Dreams

By Paul Harasim

At age seven, she was homeless, living in a car with her mother and younger brother. When she was 14, her mother died of alcohol abuse. Her father, in and out of her life, died of a cocaine overdose. The first of her three children was diagnosed with autism.

In 2017, at age 30, when her third child was just four months old, Faun Botor became a member of the charter class of the UNLV School of Medicine.

Talk about the resilience of the human spirit.

You can see Botor entering University Medical Center—UMC is the medical school’s main training hospital—and she’s smiling, asking you about your day. Her jam-packed day, which started with getting her little ones ready for an autism clinic or daycare, is going wonderfully, she says.

So it goes when you’re living your dream.

Today, more women than ever before are fulfilling their dreams of becoming a physician. In fact, in 2017 the Association of American Medical Colleges reported that the number of women enrolling in medical schools exceeded the number of men for the first time: 50.7% of the 21,338 new enrollees. The new UNLV School of Medicine followed the pattern with 31 women and 29 men in its inaugural 2017 class. UNLV’s second med school class, which gets into full swing this fall, is evenly split, 30-30.

Medicine has long attracted fewer women than men in the U.S., largely because women were steered away from the sciences and because of the unpredictable work hours associated with the profession.

Dr. Barbara Atkinson, founding dean of the UNLV School of Medicine, and the only woman to have headed three medical schools in the U.S., says that when she began medical school in 1970, only 10% of medical school students were female.

“My mother and mother-in-law were against my going,” says Atkinson, who began medical school after her two children started school. “They thought a woman should be home with the children, that my children would be ruined.” Atkinson’s son is a CPA. Her daughter, an executive chef.

Atkinson’s father, a college professor, and husband, a physician, wanted her to follow her dream. In-home help for the children was hired. “There wasn’t daycare back then,” Atkinson says. “Society has changed dramatically regarding women pursuing careers.”

Three women with widely diverse backgrounds—Botor, Diana Pena and Lauren Hollifield—recently discussed how they became members of the UNLV School of Medicine’s inaugural class. They say they were never discouraged from pursuing math and science courses, which educators say is indicative from the time they are in grade school.

Botor’s dream of becoming a doctor began when her mother became ill. “In eighth grade, my mother (she worked as a casino dealer and housekeeper) was in and out of the hospital due to liver and renal failure. At the hospital, I felt at home. I loved being around nurses and physicians, even the smell of a hospital. That was when I knew I wanted to become a doctor.”

Once her mother became critically ill, Botor said her aunt and uncle took over raising her and her brother. “We learned discipline,” says Botor, who graduated as valedictorian from Clark High School. After graduation, she attended the University of Nevada, Reno to begin what she expected would culminate with a medical degree. But she met her would-be husband, leaving school after two years to join him in his homeland of Poland. After getting married, they returned to Nevada in 2009. While pursuing her degree in comprehensive medical imaging at UNLV, she graduated with honors in 2011, Botor and her husband started a family.

Six years of work as a sonographer and three children later, Botor began work on a medical degree. “My husband is a cage supervisor at a casino and we’re lucky he works the graveyard shift. I study when the kids are sleeping. Sometimes my husband takes the kids to the clinic or daycare and sometimes I do. It’s not easy, but it’s working; this is really a dream come true.”

The 24-year-old Pena, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, did not learn English until kindergarten. “Spanish was my first language, and I entered school only knowing how to count to 10 and say my ABCs in English. I still remember the first day of school when my scissors weren’t working. I didn’t know how to tell my teacher, so I broke down and cried.”

Pena graduated with honors from Cheyenne High School in North Las Vegas and later UNLV, where she majored in both biology and psychology. She decided to become a doctor after realizing how much her father, a truck driver and financial provider for a family of seven, was affected by diabetes. “I decided I wanted to help people deal with medical issues.”

Hollifield, 26, is the daughter of first-generation college graduates who went on to earn doctorates. Her father is an ophthalmologist and her mother, a health behavioral scientist. When it came time for the Bishop Gorman High School graduate to select a college major at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, of course Hollifield went with Spanish. It wasn’t that she had entirely written off following in her parents’ footsteps. She just wanted to keep her career options open and thought becoming bilingual would only help expand those options.

It didn’t take her long to begin drifting toward medicine. She joined an emergency medical technicians group in college, completing a college internship at a Nicaraguan medical clinic.

“That’s what solidified my decision to go to medical school to become a doctor,” says Hollifield, who graduated with honors from both Loyola and Drexel University, where she earned a Master of Science degree in biochemical studies prior to starting medical school.

“I’m like so many of the medical students at UNLV,” says Hollifield. “I look forward to bringing good academic medicine to Southern Nevada, including medically underserved populations.”

Paul Harasim is Editorial Associate Director of the UNLV School of Medicine.