The storied plight of Rice University alumna Griselda Mani Meza, M.D. represents a significant life lesson well known to any dedicated person who has experienced success. Her journey is as unlikely as it is unpredictable and she says she owes her most rewarding of careers to staying focused and never forgetting her passion.
As a young girl, Mani Meza lived in a village in the mountains of central Mexico. Her eventual life goal of becoming a doctor can be traced to a heartbreaking experience in this small bucolic town. One day, she witnessed a hardworking father of six children die of tetanus after injuring his foot while working in a field of corn. It was a superficial wound that would’ve been inconsequential if only basic medical care were available. Often, she has pondered how many more unfortunate families have suffered a similar fate. At that point in time, solving the immediate problem of her communities’ substandard healthcare was not on her young mind but the seed was definitely planted.
In search of a better way of life, Mani Meza’s parents emigrated to the United States, found jobs and saved enough money to bring over their children. Ten-year old Mani Meza remembers the harrowing journey as if it were yesterday.
“Right before crossing the river, we were robbed at gunpoint and left with nothing but the clothes we were wearing," said Mani Meza, who graduated from Rice in 1996 with a B.S. in mechanical engineering.
“I was scared, but soon enough I was having fun crossing the river on a tube and later giggling as we hid from a helicopter overhead. I was so young and innocent that I never gave a thought about how dangerous it was to travel that way. We walked all night through the desert with only the moon lighting our way. Thorny grass scratched every inch of my bare legs but we pressed on, determined to reach our destination.”
Mani Meza’s journey to a better life was perilous but she explained the real hardship began on her first day of middle school. She spoke not a single word of English. Everything was new and unfamiliar. The little satisfaction she had was in her competence in mathematics. When her teacher called her to solve a problem, Mani Meza was confident in her answer but all she could do was break down in tears. She could not answer in English. The language barrier was just one of many obstacles she would have to overcome.
Meanwhile, she recalled during school enrollment, she received several vaccines including tetanus. She thought to herself that one simple shot could have saved that man’s life back in Mexico and his family would still be whole. This was the moment Mani Meza realized she had a dream and it was related to improving the world through healthcare. As she continued her studies, her English improved and so did her grades.
“By high school, I was certain that my dream was to become a doctor. My geometry teacher, Ruth Kravetz, introduced me to career opportunities and to Rice University. With her encouragement, I joined a team that tackled a fascinating engineering project. We developed a device for quadriplegic patients that enabled them to read. The project was exciting and I was overjoyed that it was related to medicine. I convinced myself that engineering was a more realistic goal than becoming a doctor.”
“After many tough challenges, the hardest part yet would be succeeding in college. Before Rice, I never knew academics could be so challenging. Additionally, Rice was a real culture shock. I soon discovered that no matter the differences in students’ background, race, or nationality, Rice has a place for everyone. I found my place with many new friends by the end of my freshman year,” she said. With a support group and perseverance succeeding at Rice was becoming a reality.
While at Rice, Mani Meza honed her communication skills. One of her memorable professors is Richard A. Tapia from the Department of Computational and Applied Mathematics. Mani Meza participated in the Spend a Summer with a Scientist program that was founded and directed by Tapia.
Mani Meza said, “Every week, we pored over our research. We were expected to present and defend our work and repeating the exercise made us better. It gave me confidence. In the end, I discovered I could be an effective communicator and this valuable characteristic has opened many doors for me.”
Mani Meza became an engineer as one way to help people through medicine. Although Mani Meza felt rewarded by her engineering work, she began to realize her original goal had not yet been fulfilled. She gave up her career in engineering and started medical school followed by a residency in Pediatrics.
“Looking back, I see the similarities. Engineering is about applying knowledge of science and math to solve problems. In medicine, we apply knowledge of the human body and science to prevent or treat disease. My engineering background was definitely helpful but in the profession of medicine, my dream has finally been realized.
“With my patients, I am fulfilled with that personal touch, the connection, the emotional bonds and relationships. In medicine, as in engineering, I enjoy the science, the math and the challenge. Best of all, there is never a dull moment.”
Mani Meza’s 15-year career in pediatrics has continued to span the kind of cultural inclusivity she first experienced at Rice. Her patients hail from nations worldwide, such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and Vietnam, as well as Spanish-speaking countries like Honduras, Cuba, El Salvador and Costa Rica. The incredible diversity of the communities she serves has sharpened her communication skills which she said begins with listening.
“Every day doctors must listen. We take different approaches depending on the patient. We need to hear about their concerns and problems before we can work together on solutions. Sometimes we disagree and that’s a challenge doctors face often. “Even if we don’t agree on the science, we have to come together and figure out a solution we can both live with. Every patient is unique but with each one, listening is what earns trust and grows relationships.”
Today, Mani Meza provides healthcare to east Houston families as a doctor in the ABC Pediatric Clinic.
“My husband’s career in the Air Force caused us to move several times. For my residency and again for my practices, I would research the new location and determine where I most wanted to work and what community I wanted to serve. When our last move brought us back to Houston, rejoining ABC was a no-brainer. I had worked for them previously and it is a family-owned clinic with thousands of patients in the underserved Hispanic community. I see myself in my patients and I understand their hardships.”
“During the pandemic, I have been brought to tears by my patients’ experiences of losing loved ones. This pandemic has been difficult and disheartening for healthcare workers and their patients.”
Mani Meza said some of her friends in medicine lost their jobs when whole practices closed down.
“Although the staff at ABC Pediatric Clinic may have felt uncertain in the whirlwind of the early pandemic months, we learned quickly to adapt and deal with the unpredictable virus and the evolving healthcare information. We must always remember that our reward is providing care for our patients.”
“No matter the challenges healthcare professionals face, one thing always prevails, I am happy to come to work every day to care for my patients. So to students out there considering a career in medicine, I say, ‘Follow your passion.’ There will be tears, suffering and hardship along the way, but in the end, you will be fulfilled by what you do. Pursue your passion!”
by Albert F. Meza and Carlyn F. Chatfield