School and medicine took Linda Villarreal, MD, from the Rio Grande Valley, Texas, but fate brought her back. It is a journey with tragedy and fortune that required strength and faith. She became a doctor against formidable odds and built a renowned practice serving all people.
I don’t consider myself a minority or a victim. I am from Edinburg, Texas and the oldest of seven children with six younger brothers. We were a successful, middle-class family. My mom was a schoolteacher (and nurses’ aide during college) and got her degree when I was 10. My dad owned a plumbing company and other businesses. I was surrounded by great mentors.
As a child I was sickly, and recall riding in my dad’s pickup, not being able to breathe due to asthma as he rushed me to the ER. I stayed indoors a lot and enjoyed TV shows like “Marcus Welby, M.D.” and “Dr. Kildare.” An image in my mind is our Edinburg physician making a house call in his huge Cadillac and walking to our door with his black bag. Since that time, I wanted to be a doctor.
My mom and I were “the girls” in the family and we were close. She provided ample spiritual and financial support for my ambition to become a physician. When I left to attend the University of Texas with my high school boyfriend, I knew she wanted me to someday return to Edinburg to practice. But my plan was to never come back. I wanted bigger and different.
My boyfriend and I married and he told me to skip medical school as it “took too long.” Dutifully, I said, “OK.” Family members who were pharmacists encouraged me to go to pharmacy school as it took less time, so I did.
I practiced pharmacy for 10 years around San Antonio and loved the one on one interaction – especially with female patients who were sometimes too shy to discuss concerns with a male physician. Still, in my heart, I wanted to become a physician.
My husband still said no. By then we had two little boys, yet I decided to attend medical school. Due to timing and money, I chose the Universisdad del Noreste in Tampico, Mexico. Because I chose medical school, our marriage failed.
I wanted custody of my boys. A court battle ensued and though two of my brothers were lawyers, it was south Texas in the early ‘80s and the judge ruled against me. So I traveled back and forth from Mexico to see my sons on weekends.
After two years in Mexico, I came back and did my third and fourth year clinical rotations in San Antonio. Then I started my internship in Cleveland, Ohio, and finally a residency at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in El Paso. Through all this, my boys were never far away and we created great moments and memories.
In Dallas in 1989, I was in a working contract with Kaiser and had just received my medical license. Everything looked bright. I felt the pieces were finally connecting and a challenge had been overcome. Yet, in that very week, came tragic news. My mother and my baby brother (who was 27 at the time) were driving to see me and both were killed in a head-on car crash. In shock, I returned to Edinburg and simply collapsed for a month. Then one month became two, and two months became three.
Eventually, my attorney brother said, “Go find a job.”
I began looking around Edinburg. My ex-husband and our divorce were both well-known in town – for a while., it was like having a red letter painted on my forehead.
I put my CV out and met with medical groups; several made offers. One was 40 miles down the Valley in Harlingen. I drove there to sign and was planning to move and work there. For whatever reason, on the way down, I pulled over at the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe. I was familiar with this church and knew they had a pay phone near the vestibule. Something was telling me to call home.
My brother picked up and said, “Come back, we found a job for you.”
A longtime Edinburg physician had left his medical practice due to bankruptcy, and his large medical building was under foreclosure. My brothers talked to the bank and felt confident it could work out. The bank loaned me the money and I loan the building. I was set up now in Edinburg. If I had not called home, I would have signed in Harlingen and never looked back.
The Rio Grande Valley and Memorial Medical Care
This was my opening to become involved in organized medicine, and I realized why my mother wanted me to come back. There were few doctors and the highest rate of uninsured in Texas were from Brownsville to Laredo. I had to build a practice as all the patients had left due to bankruptcy.
Everyone who came in the door, I saw. Some were hard working, but did not have insurance or money to pay for their care. They paid in eggs or sheep. One lady who lost her Medicare coverage, who I continued to see, made me a beautiful hand-crocheted tablecloth that I still treasure and use after 20 years.
To be more like a home, I changed the office look and feel, I added antiques, expensive rugs, a church bench and other amenities. I named the practice Memorial Medical Care in honor of my mother and brother. My goal from the beginning was to bring integrity, value and quality to the practice and never waver. I made myself available 24-7. Soon I was seeing 20-30 patients a day.
Ninety percent of my patients are Spanish speaking and that is what I speak with them. If a patient was sick and needed more time, I would personally apologize to the others waiting. A familial atmosphere of care also builds trust. For one instance, one patient had a heart attack in my office and would not get in the ambulance without me. So, I went with him. Another needed her gallbladder removed but would not agree unless I was in the operating room with her. So, I was.
Memorial Medical Care became respected and helped me to go to places like the state capital and Washington, DC, to talk about the border and the needs of the Valley. When I reached out to other specialists and providers to come to the Valley, they signed on.
When WellMed and Optum came calling in 2018 and showed how they could help and how they were aligned in all the areas of quality and patient-focused care as Memorial – and additionally their abilities and administrative, data and much more, I joined. Right now, I can now even better serve my Valley.
Today, through Optum’s mission, we are changing health care for the better across this great country.
2022 marks 33 years for me as a physician in Edinburg. I have a husband who supports my passion and my two little boys – now criminal journey and a psychologist – have their families and live nearby. We are as close as any mother and sons can be.