In the Community
Dr. Christian Arbelaez has faced lots of barriers. He fled Colombia with his family when he was 10 after his parents received a threat to kidnap him, a common occurrence for Colombian families. When he arrived in Miami, FL, he spoke no English and had no friends. “It was a very challenging time for me,” he says. “I remember my teacher writing questions on the board, but because I didn’t understand English, I just copied them down and turned them in as answers the next day.”
When the family moved to Houston, TX, he found himself in a rough neighborhood where drugs and gang violence ruled. But his father, who worked as a repairman, and his mother, who cleaned houses, kept him busy and out of trouble. “I often went with my Mom to help her clean the houses,” says Christian. “Because of the discrimination I saw my parents endure, I learned the importance of education; it’s the great equalizer.”
At the start of his senior year in high school the registrar told Christian he was in the top 15% of his class, no easy feat in a school with almost 1,000 students and given the fact that he was also going to night school to get his Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certificate, as well as volunteering at the local emergency room. “I suffered from asthma as a child,” he says, “so emergency medicine has always been a part of my life and subconsciously has influenced my career choice.”
Because neither of his parents went to college, higher education wasn’t on his radar, but thanks to his high school anatomy/physiology teacher who encouraged and helped him navigate the application and scholarship maze, he was accepted. Financial aid was always a big concern, but the Hispanic Scholarship Fund made a huge difference in his ability to continue his studies.
To save money, he lived at home and attended Houston Baptist University, graduating with a B.S. in Biology in 1996. He received his M.D. in 2000 from the University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, TX; got his Masters in Public Health from Harvard School of Public Health Boston; and did his residency in Emergency Medicine at Brown Medical School in Providence, RI, where he also became Chief Resident. Today, Dr. Arbelaez is Assistant Residency Director of the Harvard Affiliated Emergency Medicine Residency Program and Associate Director of the Office for Multicultural Careers at the Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) in Boston.
“My father always taught me to help people, so he was a big influence in my decision to go into medicine,” Christian says. “And making it to Harvard? Well, that’s an accomplishment everyone, myself included, is very proud of.”
Christian now plans to return to his roots and go back to Colombia with his four children to visit family and to set up an exchange program with Harvard and key doctors in medical universities there. He also continues to help out wherever his services are needed, having served with the Red Cross after Katrina and Partners in Health in Haiti, and working with the Indian Health Service.
“I’ve been blessed to have a supportive family and wonderful mentors,” he says. “I encourage my students and children to stay true to their personal and moral compass, seek mentorship, to seize opportunities when they come along, set realistic goals, and have an alternative plan in case things don’t work out.”
Despite overwhelming barriers, Dr. Christian Arbelaez’s story teaches us that with hard work and dedication we can overcome them.