A life between academia, medicine, and family

By : Estefanía Fajardo
Periodista científica de Global Rheumatology by PANLAR.

04 December, 2020

"Dr. Gloria Vásquez enjoys talking about her family, her students, and the countryside. He enjoys every challenge because his motto is to work with passion and commitment."

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She laughs when she tries to describe herself but does not hesitate when describing those who supported her in her process. She is proud of her roots and a 'mother hen' with her students. She enjoys time spent with her family, who a month and a half ago welcomed a new member, Jerónimo, and loves the countryside ever since she was a little girl. Her life unfolds between her family, academia, and medicine, a life she feels proud of and whose pursuit is to be an example for coming generations.

Gloria Vasquez is an internist and rheumatologist with a doctorate in immunology from the University of Antioquia. She works as a professor in immunology and rheumatology at that university in Medellin, Colombia. 

Challenges are a constant in her life, and her favorite word is passion. Because, for her, without it, almost nothing could have a successful outcome. She brought her passion to PANLAR 2020, which not only meant a new milestone in her career as president of the Scientific Committee but also because it took place in the middle of a pandemic and had to be adapted to what has now become commonplace: virtuality. 

She participated in PANLAR as a representative of the countries of the Bolivarian area, and she was part of the "transformation process that led to a non-profit organization," which tightened the bond throughout these years. 

"It was quite a challenge. From the beginning, when I was appointed, I was flattered. I love challenges that have to do with education, so it was exciting to take on this position. Afterward, the process of organizing the event was wonderful because there was a call throughout the Americas for those who wished to participate, and for the type of academic proposal and topic they wanted to explore," says Dr. Vasquez. 

The next challenge was to try to make a dynamic and collaborative congress detached from fixed, face-to-face academic sessions, "but to include discussions, workshops, and debates." "We received proposals that included a variety of topics, lots of interests, and the desire to show what they were doing in each of their fields," she explains. The next step was then selecting and harmonizing the topics given the similarity between some of the proposals.  

"Everything was completely set up and structured to be an in-person event, with people's participation, workshops, interactive sessions. Everything was ready to go, and along came the pandemic," she says. Therefore, "it was quite a challenge because virtuality has its own limitations, so we knew we had very little time, and we were not going to be able to engage in such participatory sessions. We had to optimize time and people's availability".

Then came a second process: selecting which sessions to keep. "That led us to reconsider the events that had already been selected. Then we decided which ones would be pre-recorded, which would be life, and how it would all be structured, so we moved on towards a virtual congress". She also confesses that since daily life was already virtualized, it was then a matter of how to accommodate to the new reality. "Firstly, we had to deal with our professional practice. We could not abandon the patients during a pandemic, so we looked for tools, started virtual consultations, and arranged the basics for procedures and so on," she says. The second front had to do with the virtualization of academic events. "The talks, shorter presentation times, concrete messages that would allow attendees to be present and enjoy them." The third front was our personal lives. The pandemic completely changed our dynamics." 

To this point, it was initially a matter of selecting a relevant topic. The proposal then had to meet the public's expectations, and we had to make sure the people who had made the proposals were suitable. We also worked on forming alliances, "when we received proposals on the same topic, we talked to the proposers and ended up with a symposium that had everything. This is how we were able to consolidate an attractive program", says Dr. Vásquez. 

There were three in-person working sessions, each lasting two days, to select proposals and topics and organize the setup. Subsequently, for the virtual program, there were four all-day sessions to redesign, select and assemble it. And that was the setting up of the PANLAR 2020 academic plan, adapted to virtualization and the so-called "new normal." 



There is not a shred of doubt in her mind about her calling for medicine, which is perhaps only surpassed by that of teaching. And when she combines the two, it results in fulfillment, motivation, and the desire to move forward. 

"Since I finished medicine, my calling has been more inclined towards teaching than the medical practice. Since my mandatory social service year, I was a teacher at CES University. From then on, I never stopped being a teacher. I put effort into keeping myself updated, being in contact with those in training, motivating them, and making them passionate about what we do. It has been a lifetime dedicated to being a teacher in this field," says Dr. Vasquez. 

She also recalls that during her first years of Medicine at CES University, Dr. Carlos Agudelo, a Colombian rheumatologist who practiced in the United States, was her professor and organized a rheumatology symposium that had presentations from renowned specialists. "At that event, I decided to become a rheumatologist, around the fourth semester, from then on it became my life purpose," she indicates. 

When she started, there were only 11 women out of 80 male students. "Currently, those percentages have changed, and there is a higher percentage of women studying medicine." She emphasizes that out of the 17 Internal Medicine residents, she was the only woman. She highlights women's remarkable work and their constant effort to face the struggles posed outside and inside the academy.

"More and more women occupy positions in training physicians and specialists. She has experienced an exponential growth in the field of rheumatology, which has also allowed her to have more active participation in PANLAR, EULAR, American College of Rheumatology." She adds that in 2020 the participation of women in leadership processes had around a 60-40 distribution. Hence, she is confident that "there is more active participation." 

"We can all participate in the same association if we are clear about maintaining equity so that gender is not a determining factor in providing one opportunity or another. We can stick together as long as we are equitable," she adds. 

She is the daughter of a doctor, "my father was a general surgeon, and medicine was ever-present at home. My father's life was devoted to his work. He was a great example and a source of motivation. Perhaps, the only doubt I had was that I liked animals, so my second option was veterinary medicine." That is how she refers to Licinio Vásquez, her first professional role model.

"I loved teaching since I was in school. When I finished the last years of high school, I had a board on the balcony of my house. I gave classes to my classmates in subjects in which they were not doing so well, such as chemistry and physics. Later, when I finished medicine, what I wanted was to teach other people what I did," she says. 

She also points out that one of her shortcomings is that she takes on patients with too much affection and passion, "and when you have many patients, the practice becomes difficult because it is hard to distance yourself. I decided to set limits on time and split between patients and education. People may say I'm crazy," and she closes her statement laughing, as was almost a rule after talking about herself. 

"I die for my students; my husband says they are like my children. As a teacher, I ask a lot from them, but I like to show passion and commitment to set an example, and by example, I hope to motivate them. If they see it in their teacher, that is how they take on the challenge," she talks about her students, whom she meets frequently, and confesses that when she sees their achievements, she cries and gets excited. "They are in different parts of the world and seeing them at the top makes me very excited." 

Moreover, she recounts how her students also teach her every day. "I think that's the most exciting thing about being a teacher, every day, I learn so much from them, and that's what I enjoy the most. Every day they challenge, question, and motivate me. That is what makes me grow, what keeps me active and alive. That is why stopping is not a possibility." 

However, her calling for education does not stop there. Her advice is to always ask why, "why did this happen? why did you make this decision? Do not learn in voice recorder mode without any sense, always understand why you are learning. That is one of the mottos I repeat to them". 

Besides medicine and academia, there is something that moves her as a human being: the countryside. "As a good Antioqueña, I am a highlander, I like the mountains, the cattle, I enjoy horseback riding tremendously. During times of violence in our country, we had to distance ourselves from the countryside. Throughout those years, I submerged myself in my profession," she says. She also talks about having three dogs, a cat, and when she goes to the farm, there are also the cattle. "I find fieldwork to be wonderful," she closes. (*Antioqueño is the name for people born in Antioquia, Colombia. They are also called 'paisas'. Antioquia is an area of mountains and peasant traditions, which explains the origin of the expression 'highlander' used by Dr. Vásquez.)



Her husband is José Vicente González, with whom she studied medicine. He specialized in urology and practices focusing on cancer. She does not fall short of words when talking about the type of person he is. There is plenty of admiration for the father of her two daughters, María Antonia, 28, and Julia, 27. 

"I have a wonderful husband. My husband and my daughters have been so wonderfully patient and tolerant when it comes to my time invested in medicine and education. They have been wonderful, understanding people," she says. 

She says, laughing, "none of them studied medicine" when she tells how María Antonia is an industrial engineer, while Julia decided to study Marketing. It hurt her "a little bit" that they were not inclined towards medicine, "my husband is a very open and understanding person, and he told me we should let them grow and follow their own path. If they would have chosen to be doctors, perhaps they would have had a path already cleared by our achievements, but they are growing in their own professions. I kept my feelings to myself, and I didn't try to influence them," she confesses. 

"The dynamics as a family have changed. Before, we all lived together, but now they have families of their own, and we see each other on the weekends. My husband likes to cook, so we do that together, or we enjoy visiting the countryside and the animals. And as is customary of people from Antioquia, we get together and talk," she says. 

Discipline, responsibility, and passion. "Whatever you decide to do, do it with those three words in mind," she concludes when talking about the foundations she has given her daughters for life. 

Throughout her career, she has had many mentors, professionals who have taught her medicine and how to grow as a human being, and she is clear when mentioning them. 

"Dr. Carlos Agudelo was my professor in medical school and was my role model. It was because of him that I decided to become a rheumatologist; he was my motivator. Afterward, he supported me in many stages of my growth and even during my doctorate. My mentors were Dr. Javier Molina and my colleagues later in Rheumatology practice, such as Dr. Oscar Uribe. I am extremely thankful to my professors during the specialization, Dr. Peña, Iglesias, Lizarazo, Rondón, Sánchez, and Chalem, who were my support, my mentors and motivators" they, she assures, taught her linking and passion for what she does. 

A month and a half ago, her first grandchild was born. A birth amid a pandemic and somewhat surprising, but which undoubtedly was a challenge and an immense joy for all of us as a family. Jerónimo arrived to, for now, brighten up their weekends as long as masks, physical distancing, and other self-care measures be our daily premises.

"I love and enjoy, even if it might seem trivial, watching television. I am passionate about historical, drama, and mystery series and movies," says Dr. Vasquez when talking about those spaces she enjoys away from academia or medicine. 

She learned respect from her husband. "He respects what the other wants, what the other desires. That respect has granted me space for personal growth, even when it means sacrificing time with him or with my daughters. That is one of his great virtues, and it has been wonderful," she says. 

She describes herself as a hard-working, responsible woman, very respectful of authority, disciplined. "I would say, as young people say nowadays, a nerd." And she laughs.

"This pandemic left her the ability to take on challenges. Every day we all have had to adapt to something new, from banking transactions to communication. This pandemic has demanded everything from us," she concludes.

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