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Dr. Nancy E. Jasso





Year of Birth / Death

b. 1960


Medical School

Harvard Medical School


Geography

LOCATION
California


Career Path

Internal medicine: Dermatology
Dr. Nancy E. Jasso



Milestones

YEAR
1998
ACHIEVEMENT
Dr. Nancy Jasso is one of the founding physicians of a laser tattoo-removal project for the San Fernando Valley Violence Prevention Coalition.


Inspiration

When I was about four and a half years old my father died very suddenly - he was having surgery, and had a post-operative complication. And so I think that left a huge impression on me at a very young age... I became very interested in finding out what made the difference between life and death. And I think at a very young age—even kindergarten and first grade—I found myself really drawn to kind of the biological sciences and science in general, just trying to understand it, without really knowing what the motivation was at that point.

So from a very, very early age, I was very interested in those things, though I didn't even know any medical professionals. There was not a single physician that I actually knew. I did receive my health care, and... you know, would go in and have kind of my school physicals and that kind of thing done, but I didn't really see anybody who looked anything like me doing that job. So even at that very young age I had huge interest in it, but I really wasn't sure that that was something I would be able to do.



Biography

Committed to helping people change their lives, Dr. Nancy Jasso volunteers every Saturday at a laser tattoo-removal project she helped found. While giving up her spare time is difficult, she is willing to do so because it gives hope to others. "I have a lot of respect for the patients in the Tattoo Clinic. These are patients who are really trying to change their lives, and change is hard. And yet they've been courageous enough to actually try to put their life on a different track. So I figure anything that I can do to be helpful to them, I'm very willing to do."

Born in 1960, the youngest of seven children to parents who emigrated from Mexico, Nancy Jasso lost her father when he died suddenly of a post-operative complication when she was four and a half years old. This profound loss left her with a strong desire to understand what made the difference between life and death, and from a very young age she found herself drawn to the biological sciences.

While in high school she decided she wanted to be a doctor, but her counselors discourage her, warning her that her goal was too difficult. Instead they advised her to study engineering. After graduating at the top of her high school class, Nancy Jasso entered Stanford as an engineering major. She was still interested in a career as a physician though, and soon switched her major to human biology.

Stanford was a turning point for her, Jasso says. "... It really opened my eyes to understand that there were things that were possible for me that I might not have realized previously. At that point, I did really feel very comfortable to kind of dream big. Once I'd done that well at Stanford, I knew that really pretty much anything was going to be possible." She graduated in 1983.

Jasso then went on to Harvard Medical School, where her studies were more difficult and more consuming than she expected. She received her medical degree from Harvard in 1988, graduating in the top three percent of her class. At the same time, she received her M.P.H. in Public Health, specializing in health policy and health management.

Dr. Jasso completed a residency in internal medicine at the University of California Los Angeles Medical Center in 1991. She decided to make a change while making rounds one day, realizing that she would prefer to specialize more narrowly and do something with a strong surgical component. "... All of a sudden I just had this great idea that I should become a dermatologist," Dr. Jasso recalled. "I had always paid a lot of attention to dermatology, just because as a primary care physician, you take care of a lot of people's skin problems. But I had never imagined myself as a specialist. And I think it's the best thing I could have done." Dr. Jasso was appointed chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente in 1994.

For the past four years, Dr. Jasso has volunteered her services to remove tattoos from young people, many of them former gang members. It is slow, difficult work, and each patient can require up to nine painful sessions. In exchange for the free removal of their tattoos, they volunteer 16 hours in their community. Dr. Jasso was one of the program's original physician-volunteers.

Dr. Jasso hears their stories, and is impressed with their courage. "That could have been me, and they could be me," she says. "It's kind of like it really just matters who's come into your life that's giving you a sense of hope, a sense of opportunity. I think that every single person has meaning in their life. I think that we all have the potential to really do extraordinary things."

In many ways, Dr. Jasso brings her community to work with her as part of her continuing effort to lead activities focused on improving the health and well-being of the Latino community. She serves as coordinator of the Women Physician's Conference at Kaiser Permanente, chairs Kaiser's Diversity Advisory Council, and sits on Kaiser's regional Culturally Responsive Care Committee.

In 1998, the Young Women's Christian Association of Los Angeles and KNBC-TV chose Dr. Jasso as one of the "Ten Incredible Women Making History". In 1999, she was selected "Exceptional Physician of the Year" by her peers at Kaiser Permanente. She has received numerous citations for excellence and leadership in medicine, including recognition by Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.



Question and Answer

What was my biggest obstacle?

For most of my life I had actually thought that I wanted to become a physician. And then in high school, my high school counselors actually advised me against it. They told me that it's very difficult to get into medical school. And they didn't want me pursuing something that they didn't think was possible. And so I actually listened, and I changed my major. And I spent my entire freshman year at Stanford majoring in Engineering, and I knew it just wasn't where my heart was.

So I think that there were a lot of barriers. I think it was hard for me to believe in something, when I'd never seen a doctor who looked anything like me, and I think that that has a huge kind of subconscious effect. And the few women that I did see who were physicians, it seemed like it was very difficult. It didn't seem like a lifestyle that actually lent itself to being very friendly to women. And I think that that's been a real reality as well.

But I see the culture of medicine really changing over time; I see the incorporation of more women in medicine, to really change the culture of medicine, and I think it's actually kind of increasing the humanity.

How do I make a difference?

I think I make a difference every day. And I see it in the satisfaction that I see in people's faces after our encounter together. People leave feeling a little better, that even if we can't cure their disease, they at least have a better understanding of it; they have a better understanding of how to manage it; they have a better understanding of how to live with it; and just putting it into context for them.

I think that dermatology is a field that really is very under-appreciated. It's very poorly understood, actually, by physicians and patients as well. We tend to kind of trivialize skin, when we think about it. People tend to think of things like acne as kind of trivial. But even when we're talking about acne, if you're the person who has really severe acne, there's nothing trivial about a severe skin condition.

In addition, skin cancer is a huge epidemic right now. I don't think that people realize that half of all the cancers that are being diagnosed right now are skin cancers. There's about a hundred thousand people dying every year of skin cancer. There are fifty thousand new cases of melanoma being diagnosed in the United States every year. That's an amazingly high number. The best treatment, the state-of-the-art treatment for melanoma at this point, is surgical. So when you have an atypical nevus—a mole that is irregular, atypical—then what we need to do surgically remove the mole itself and some surrounding skin, to try to get that off of the patient before the horse is out of the barn, so to speak. And if we can do that, then it's a hundred percent cure.

Who was my mentor?

Well, my mother is really my biggest hero. She's really an amazing person. My dad died when I was four years old. And here my mother was a young widow in a foreign country with seven children. And I just really admire her bravery; I really admire her resilience; I really admire her determination to really make it work.

How has my career evolved over time?

Becoming a dermatologist was really the furthest thing from my mind. From the very beginning, through college and through medical school, I very much saw my role as that of a primary care physician serving my community. That was very much where I thought I was heading. And it really came to me kind of like a light bulb. I was sitting there one day actually on wards taking care of patients, considering what I was going to with my life, and all of a sudden I just had this great idea that I should become a dermatologist. And I had always paid a lot of attention to dermatology, just because as a primary care physician, you take care of a lot of people's skin problems. But I had never imagined myself as a specialist. And I think it's the best thing I could have done. Dermatology is an amazing field, and I've really enjoyed it.



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