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  • Writer's pictureUCHC

Dr. Edgar Chavez '98: A Vow to Serve His Community

With every application essay—for college and for medical school—Dr. Edgar Chavez ’98 returned to the same theme.

“In all my essays I wrote, ‘Give me a chance and I’m going to go back and work in my community,’” says Chavez, who was still a boy when his family landed in a struggling South Los Angeles neighborhood after fleeing war-torn El Salvador. “That’s what got me into Pomona. That's what got me into Stanford. Everybody saw this sort of drive in me to accomplish my goals because I wanted to go back to the community that I grew up in because I wanted to help.”

But by the time he completed his residency, “I had a mountain of loans,” he says. He was married, with a 2-year-old daughter. “I needed to get a job.”

Kaiser Permanente offered the young doctor with a Stanford medical degree the sort of position many physicians now covet—one with an excellent salary and benefits, freedom from the challenges of running a practice, and maybe most of all, work-life balance.

Hesitantly and then determinedly, Chavez turned away and followed a dogged and entrepreneurial path that led to the creation of the Universal Community Health Center, now a three-clinic nonprofit he founded in 2009. The first clinic is practically in the shadow of the 10 Freeway near downtown L.A.—only blocks from where he grew up in an immigrant family at the corner of Washington and Broadway. Another is on South L.A.’s Central Avenue and a third on San Pedro Street.

Chavez saw the need, even as a boy. But he could never have imagined the depths of the need he and Universal have worked to fill as the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare economic, racial and healthcare disparities. At one point, the Los Angeles Times reported, public health data showed that one in six people in South L.A. had tested positive for the virus, yet only one in 24 in a population that is majority Latino and Black had received the vaccination. Meanwhile, in some wealthy coastal neighborhoods, more than one in four had received vaccinations in areas where fewer than one in 30 had tested positive.

Chavez has seen up close what the numbers mean.

“In the past year, I've probably lost upwards of 15 to 20 patients to COVID, my own patients that I've seen over the past 10 years that I've been at the clinic,” he says. “A lot of our population historically has gotten poor healthcare, so they have lots of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease. When they get COVID, it's not a flu, it's not a cold. It's actually something that drives them to the hospital. We're seeing a lot of deaths.

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