Saul Bautista was inspired by his service and Newark roots to address social factors that lead to disease
Saul Bautista loved science when he was growing up and wondered what it would be like to be a doctor. But during his childhood in Newark, as the son of working-class Dominican parents, he didn’t know anyone that looked like him who was a physician. It was a reach he didn’t think was possible at the time.
That changed when Bautista decided to join the U.S. Army after graduating from high school in 2004. He trained to be a lab technician and was assigned to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, the largest U.S. military hospital outside the United States that treats wounded soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. He witnessed some difficult moments but discovered what he wanted to do with his life.
“It was a defining experience,” said Bautista, who is one of only 60 veterans from across the country selected as a 2019 Tillman Scholar, awarded to military veterans and their spouses who are committed to making a difference in their communities.
The first time he witnessed war upfront he was transporting a critically wounded patient to the ICU who had been airlifted from the warzone.
“He looked like he was hit by a pretty bad IED. From the waist down, he was gone. His legs were gone, one arm was gone, and half his body was burned. I thought about the amazing group of nurses and medics working with physicians and giving this guy a chance, that's when a light bulb went on. The idea of becoming a physician, leading a medical team, and providing that level of care seemed rewarding,” Bautista said.
After Bautista finished his tour of duty in 2008, he enrolled at Rutgers University-Newark to study biology. It was then, while working part-time at Liberty Science Center as an interpretive assistant with families and kids from the inner city, that he noticed how much a zip code matters when it comes to education and health.
He saw that fresh fruit and vegetables were easily accessible to families in the suburbs, but not always in cities. Instead, he said, fast-food chains seem to be located on every corner.
“As I continued on in college that relationship became more apparent,” he said. “I realized that most medical problems stem from social problems.”
That’s when Bautista decided to enroll in a dual MD/MPH degree program between Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and the School of Public Heath. During his first year, he founded the NJMS Lifestyle Medicine Interest Group where he oversaw the implementation of student fitness programs and community lifestyle medicine initiatives. He also became involved in Code Blue: Redefining the Practice of Medicine, a documentary film produced by Rutgers undergraduate and medical school alum Saray Stancic, focusing on lifestyle medicine as a way of fixing our health care system.
And it is why he is now a medical resident in internal medicine and pediatrics at Prisma Health/University of South Carolina. He wants to make sure all parents and children, as well as community leaders, realize the importance diet, exercise and sleep have on long-term health.
“I had no idea what kale was until my first year of medical school,” said Bautista. “Kohlrabi and bok choy, I didn’t even know that they existed. I figured if that was my experience, maybe that was the same for others like me here in Newark.”
I had no idea what kale was until my first year of medical school. I figured if that was my experience, maybe that was the same for others like me here in Newark.
His goal is to help build a health care system that empowers people to be stewards of their own health. The only way to foster a culture of health, he insists, is by addressing lifestyle and social factors like employment, housing, nutrition and education.
Bautista is the fifth Rutgers student to be selected as a Tillman Scholar. Bryan Adams, who received his undergraduate degree in marketing at Rutgers University-Camden was the first, chosen in 2010. The Pat Tillman Foundation, established in 2004 following the death of Pat Tillman, who left the NFL to join the Army after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, invests in veterans and their spouses through academic scholarships.
Bautista said he was honored to receive the scholarship.
“I think it is a testament to the quality of support coupled with the caliber of education that veterans receive here at Rutgers,’’ Bautista said. “I firmly believe that Rutgers is an exceptional institution and am proud to continue to represent the university and its veterans by continuing that legacy as a 2019 Tillman Scholar.’’
This story originally appeared on Rutgers Today.