Health Care

March 27, 2014

Horrific accident inspired Fresno medical resident to dream big

When Andres Anaya was growing up in Fresno and first learning to talk, it was in American Sign Language -- both his parents are deaf.

In kindergarten, he struggled with the spoken word and had problems reading. And he squeaked through school. College was not on his radar when he graduated from Hoover High School more than 20 years ago. Instead, he started work at an industrial plant in southeast Fresno. Anaya's life would change when he almost died in an accident on the job.

Physically and emotionally hurt, he began a slow recovery, but as he healed he came to a conclusion: He wanted more from his life -- and the thing he wanted most was to become a doctor.

Last week, Anaya, 40, learned he'd been chosen for a residency program to be an emergency physician in Fresno -- the culmination of years of hard work. Now he wants to encourage high school students to dream big, just as he did.

A fit man with the build of a weight lifter and the easygoing manner of a pal you'd have a beer with, Anaya considers himself a "garden-variety, average guy." He's the eldest of three children of hard-working parents and spent summers at his grandmother's house in Calwa. He played football in high school and cruised Kings Canyon Road as a teenager.

His background is what makes Anaya uniquely qualified among the 100 physicians chosen this year for residency training in eight specialties and fellowship training in 14 subspecialties at the University of California at San Francisco-Fresno Medical Education Program.

"He truly represents the people we take care of -- the working poor," said Dr. Jim Comes, director of the emergency residency program.

Anaya's drive to become a doctor did not go unnoticed when he applied for the residency program. "He worked hard -- harder than a lot of people have to work," Comes said.

By the time he was 5, he was interpreting for his parents, Christopher and Mary Anaya. His father is a 40-year postal service employee, and his mother retired recently after 37 years working at the Internal Revenue Service. They live in Madera Ranchos outside of Madera.

Although Anaya excelled at sign language, he fell behind in reading, which he would learn later in medical school was to be expected: Auditory stimulation is important for reading development and testing showed that he had a reading disorder.

Anaya barely avoided flunking out of high school and was suspended from the football team his junior year because of low grades; he scarcely cracked a book at Hoover.

College seemed out of the realm of possibility for him in 1992. A school counselor was blunt: "College just isn't for everybody."

The counselor was right -- at the time, Anaya said.

He got a job at a factory in southeast Fresno where diesel tires were re-treaded and rims refinished.

His future appeared set on a blue-collar road until the industrial accident changed his life's path.

A piece of equipment had broken at the plant, and he agreed to try and fix it. Anaya turned off the machine and crawled head first, as far as he could shimmy his body, under a hydraulic door that had stopped a few inches off the ground.

Within a few minutes, Anaya heard a humming sound -- the machine's motor had been turned on. The reinforced metal door began to come down, squeezing him at his waist. He felt bones break. He couldn't breathe.

"I was literally being crushed to death and suffocating," he said.

He feared he would die and prayed: "Please God, don't let me die like this."

He was rescued minutes later and rushed to Saint Agnes Medical Center. He couldn't feel his legs. Three vertebrae in his lower back had broken.

It would be a month before he could walk. And months of depression would follow. For a year, he did nothing. He gained weight. "I was just a mess," he said.

A nurse convinced him to see a psychologist. The diagnosis: post-traumatic stress syndrome.

As he began to heal and recover, Anaya said he made a decision: "I wanted things from life and I was going to go get them."

The accident, he said, "was the best thing that could have happened to me."

He moved out of Fresno to start a new life and enrolled in classes at a community college in San Jose. From the first class, he mapped out a plan to get to medical school. He squeezed classes around a schedule that also included working 40 to 50 hours a week.

He got straight A's his first semester in history, psychology, remedial English and speech classes. He got all A's the next year and was named Academic Student of the Year; he also was voted homecoming king.

In 2001, he participated in a summer research program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Of the 15 college students selected, he was the only one from a community college.

He transferred to San Jose State and continued to work full-time, but he pestered researchers at Stanford University to let him "work harder and longer and for nothing" as a volunteer in a research laboratory. He would volunteer there for two years.

It took a year and hard study to get a high score on the medical school admittance test, and seven schools accepted his application, including Cornell University in New York. His top choice was the University of California at San Francisco -- and they wanted him, giving him a full scholarship.

Anaya's father cried when he learned his son was going to medical school. For his father's birthday, Anaya surprised him with a wrapped box that contained the medical schools' acceptance letters.

His parents and sister, Maryann Sanchez, 32, of Fresno, said they never expected he would become a doctor. Sanchez and brother, Chris Anaya, 36, were the more studious of the three siblings. Sanchez is a correctional officer in the Valley and Chris is a Madera police officer.

As Sanchez interpreted, her father recalled that Anaya was not the best of students when he was young: "I always had to get on to him to do his homework." When Anaya started community college, "I thought, that's not going to last."

Now his son is a Fresno emergency department doctor.

Today, Anaya shows no signs of the devastating industrial accident that nearly crippled him.

His ties to the downtown Fresno medical center go back 40 years -- he was born there.

His connections to the community will help him achieve his latest goal: getting high school students to become doctors and return to Fresno to practice.

"We need doctors who love the Valley and understand it," he said.

Comes, the residency program's director, said there's little doubt that Fresno will benefit from its native son: "I'm certain he will make it a better place."

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