Published: April 27, 2016 By

Alum credits CU-Boulder history professor with launching him into med school

University of Colorado Boulder alumnus and pediatrician Mike Nelson (’91 History & Spanish) uses his degrees every day and credits a passionate professor with helping him get into medical school.

Nelson is general pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente, where he is also a Kaiser-certified medical Spanish translator.  Nelson’s fluency in Spanish often surprises his patients, because of his appearance. As Nelson describes it, he is “not the picture of Hispaniola.”

He practices in the United States, five miles from Tijuana, Mexico. Nearly two-thirds of his patients are primary Spanish speakers.

Mike Nelson

Mike Nelson

When he first meets patients and their families, Nelson says, “They come in and see a Caucasian guy. I can feel the tension from the parents about communicating in English about their sick children."

When Nelson introduces himself with a kind, “Yo soy el doctor Nelson. En que le puedo ayudar hoy?” he sees their faces relax. “It’s an honor to bridge that gap and help parents focus on their kids. It’s difficult to describe how satisfying that is.”

Nelson honed much of his skill set at CU-Boulder, a natural fit given his family ties to the school, which his older sister Wendy and mother Sandy also attended.

“CU-Boulder was always this pinnacle of higher education, a fun and friendly place to really do something academically,” Nelson says.

There, Nelson followed his passions, Spanish and history, which in turn led him to medicine.

Having traveled in Latin America with Amigos de las Americas, a program connecting volunteers to community-health programs, Nelson quickly learned what he could accomplish with a medical background.

He also learned how vital communication is to medicine.

“I can still remember the first few times I got sick in Latin America…[and] the terror I had about effectively [communicating] my symptoms and concerns in a second language,” Nelson says.

Today, he is on the other side of the hospital bed.

After speaking Spanish in Latin America for three summers, he spent a year abroad in Seville, Spain, where he achieved fluency by, among other things, reading Spanish newspapers aloud in his room at night.

He became fluent in medical Spanish by volunteering at a small medical clinic in eastern Boulder.

“I really liked this idea of completely embedding and engrossing myself in [the Spanish] culture,” Nelson says.

Outside his practice, Nelson volunteers as a translator and pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Tijuana to help world-renowned geneticists Dr. Ken and Marilyn Jones run a specialty genetics clinic.

Nelson is also the medical director of the San Diego Kaiser Cleft and Craniofacial Clinic, a nationally recognized interdisciplinary team that coordinates the sometimes-complicated care of these patients. With an incidence of one in 600 to 1,200 births, cleft lips and cleft palates are extremely common birth defects.

They come in and see a Caucasian guy. I can feel the tension from the parents about communicating in English about their sick children.”

When newborns are found to have a cleft of the lip and/or palate, Nelson breaks the news to their parents.

“Part of helping the babies is helping the families come to terms with a birth defect,” Nelson says. “It is a very difficult and intensely emotional experience for a parent.”

“I have tremendous confidence in the cleft team I’ve helped to develop at Kaiser Permanente, and I try to convey that confidence to the parents to reassure them that things are going to be all right…I’m very proud to be a part of it.”

To better help the families emotionally and medically, specifically with special bottles and feeding techniques, Nelson uses his Spanish and history skills.

It was at CU-Boulder that Nelson fell in love with history and learned to think like a historian.

“It was my dream to passionately pursue history and make [it] come alive,” Nelson says. He often spent six or eight hours in the library, reading everything he could about a single historic figure or event.

He remembers that Fred Anderson, his American history professor at CU-Boulder, had such passion that “you would walk into his lecture and it was like going to a movie. He [was an] unbelievable storyteller who could make things that were completely foreign, like the economics of the French and Indian War, make complete and utter sense.”

Anderson demanded that his students synthesize that information and write 45-minute essays on tests. Nelson learned to take complex information and simplify it.

The year Nelson took the MCAT test for entrance into medical school, it included a weighted essay. The prompt: Why do societies need to know about their histories?

“This was a perfect golfball, teed right up on my platter,” says Nelson, who answered the question with an essay about the American Revolution. “I did okay in sciences. I think [the essay] slanted the rest of my test.”

Two decades later, after attending George Washington University and serving in the Navy in Guam and San Diego, Nelson is still using skills he learned from Anderson: “I’m a doctor, but I’m also a historian. I take a [medical] history 25 times a day.”

Every day, he gathers information on a patient’s physiologic, anatomic and psychiatric conditions. He also looks at each patient in the context of their community, culture, and socioeconomic status.

Nelson’s end goal is not solely to produce an in-depth medical history, but also to more completely comprehend the whole patient, to improve his patients’ overall health and to help them thrive.

He also must synthesize this information for his colleagues, something he says is often difficult for physicians.

Ultimately, Nelson says, “You’ve got to be able to communicate [about] the medical record, to be able to tell a story and explain what you’re doing in a concise, precise and easy-to-read format. Thinking like a historian makes me a better doctor for my patients.”

Lara Herrington Watson is a CU alumna (’11) and freelance writer who splits her time between Denver and Phoenix.