A chance encounter
Alcy Torres, MD, pediatric neurologist at Children's Hospital Boston, is a perpetual overachiever. "Beginning in kindergarten, all the way to the end of medical school, I always came first in the class," says Torres. Born in Ecuador, he grew up surrounded by a family of physicians. From a young age, he knew he would follow in the footsteps of his grandfather and father and study medicine. "It was never a matter of thinking, 'what do I want to do when I grow up,'" says Torres. "It was obvious."
While in medical school in Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, Torres discovered a love for pediatrics. "It was easy for me to establish a rapport with kids, and I felt I had the right type of personality to work with them," he says. During his fifth year as a medical student, Torres was asked to translate for a visiting doctor. It turned out to be a serendipitous meeting. Children's John Graef, MD, who was then chief of Children's Lead and Toxicology program, was visiting Ecuador on a whirlwind tour, giving 10 lectures about general pediatrics over the course of five days. Torres' bright and thoughtful manner, as well as his superb interpreter skills, impressed Graef. "His understanding of what I was trying to teach was unusual and quite sophisticated," recalls Graef.
After a lecture one night, as the two men sat for dinner, Torres began to press Graef on how he could achieve his goal of eventually working at a leading medical center in the United States. "I asked him, what are the things I need to do?" recalls Torres. Taking a dinner napkin, Graef scribbled down suggestions, advising him to take the ECFMG exam (for foreign medical graduates), obtain some American residency training and polish his English and his resume.
While Graef returned to the United States soon after, his words made an indelible impression on Torres, who was already feeling the limitations of what he could accomplish professionally in Ecuador. After he graduated from medical school, he was accepted to one of only five pediatric residencies in the country. He decided to focus on pediatric neurology, and became fascinated by the many cases of hypoxic brain injury (which occurs when a difficult birth or complications in late pregnancy choke off blood and oxygen flow to the baby's developing brain) that he witnessed in the community. Hypoxic brain injury can set the stage for long-term conditions, like cerebral palsy and epilepsy, for which there's no good treatment. "Hypoxic brain injury is frustrating," he says. "Parents would ask me if their son was going to be able to go to school or get married, and I was unable to answer many of their questions, or oven offer hope to them." It disturbed Torres to see the same injuries, over and over, without a clear understanding of how to prevent them. He was hungry for knowledge, and- without the Internet available yet- he struggled to get American medical books shipped to his house. As his frustration mounted, he made a bold move: At risk of losing everything, he quit his residency in his second year, and moved to the United States.
Torres got a job at Miami Children's Hospital as a neurology research fellow. But he didn't forget about his friend in Boston, and one day, Graef received a knock on office door at Children's. To his surprise, there was Torres, waving a disintegrating but familiar-looking napkin. Graef asked him what he was doing there, to which Torres replied, "I finished everything on the list." Graef offered Torres some more advice, and after Torres passed the United States medical board, and had begun a pediatric residency again in Miami, he applied and was accepted to the pediatric neurology fellowship at Children's. "Coming from Ecuador, it felt like an impossible dream to get to work here at Children’s," says Torres. In 2001, he was hired as a staff neurologist.
On top of the joy he gets working with patients, Torres loves teaching and thrives when he's sharing his knowledge with young medical students, residents and fellows. "It's refreshing to the spirit," he says. Looking to the future, Torres still feels that he has much to learn. "I continue to improve," he says. "Time seems short to accomplish everything, with the human and academic aspects of life, and yet I am in peace with what I have done thus far, and am confident about what"s still to come."