Student turns adversity into a medical mission

September 19th, 2008  |  by  |  Published in Features, Sept. 2008  |  1 Comment

Gloria Tumbaga on a nursing mission to Laos

Gloria Tumbaga on a nursing mission to Laos

Service on medical missions, international recognition for research, a promising medical career…it’s not what one would expect from a once frightened child who watched her mother die, lived out of a car, was separated from siblings and forced to fend for herself. But determined third-year University of Hawaiʻi medical student Gloria Tumbaga considers herself lucky. She shares her story not as a bid for sympathy, but to argue that there is hope and that every foster kid deserves a chance.

She found her chance in UH Mānoa’s School of Nursing and John A. Burns School of Medicine. “I was asked to leave my foster family when I turned 18,” Tumbaga says. “I wasn’t even graduated yet from high school, but their legal commitment to me was completed.” A very good student at Hawaiʻi Baptist Academy, she did graduate and found her way to UH Mānoa.

Living on her own, working a minimum wage job, she struggled academically for the first time in her life. “My first semester at UH, I had a 2.8 grade point average or something. That was devastating, because I always had high grades.” So she worked harder. She attended school year-round, including summer sessions at Kapiʻolani, Honolulu and Leeward Community Colleges.

Accepted into Mānoa’s nursing program, Tumbaga earned the Spirit of Nursing Award and graduated with distinction, becoming a registered nurse in 2000. Her interest in healthcare grew out of lingering confusion and pain over her mother’s death.

“It’s all kind of confusing, because I was only 8,” she recalls. “But I remember when my mother died. She was just laying there on the floor. I still remember how she looked, all pale and her lips were blue and she was covered in sheets. My brother called the neighbors, and the ambulance came. A few days later I remember my grandfather telling all of us, ʻgo in the room and say goodbye to your mother, you are not going to see her ever again.’ And I never saw her again.” She and her four siblings had nowhere to turn. “I think we were just the pity kids no one wanted to take. Our neighbors would take us for a time. We lived in a shelter for a time.” In between, they would live out of a car. Eventually, they were separated and placed in foster homes.

Gloria Tumbaga's journey from homeless child to medical student included nursing missions to Bangladesh.

Gloria Tumbaga's journey from homeless child to medical student included nursing missions to Bangladesh.

In high school, Tumbaga began to act on the questions that gnawed at her. “Why did my mother die? I did research on my own. I went to the Department of Health and got her death certificate. It says she died of pneumonia. Antibiotics were available at that time. So why did she die?” She started reading about disease. She volunteered at the Aloha Medical Mission and learned many people lack access to medical care.

She had decided to become a physician when another family tragedy struck. Tumbaga’s sister, Tina Kobuke, was stabbed in the neck by the landlord’s son, a young man high on crystal methamphetamine. “She had a hole in her neck, was on a ventilator, and the doctor said it was very close, that she was very lucky to survive.” Overnight, Tumbaga became a parent to her 3-year-old niece while her sister was in the hospital. “It was very life-changing. I was still in school, things were very stressful. But I became calm. I thought of what really matters. I thought, if this is what I want, then I’m going to do it.”

She was accepted into the medical school’s Imi Hoʻola program, a one year, post-graduate boot camp that prepares disadvantaged or minority students for the rigors of medical school. “That was the best thing I could have done for myself. It laid the foundation for me—study skills, time management and basic sciences. I’m not going to say medical school is easy, but it made it a lot more manageable.”

Tumbaga traveled as a nurse volunteer on medical missions to Laos, Papua New Guinea, Bangladesh and the Philippines. In Satowan, a remote island in Chuuk, she joined two physicians and Micronesian health officials in investigating a skin ailment known locally as “Spam disease” for the chronic disfiguring rash resembling the luncheon meat. The team won recognition from the American College of Physicians for demonstrating that the bacterial infection is associated with exposure to water in taro fields and World War II bomb craters. Tumbaga earned a 2008 Achievement Rewards for College Scientists award and the opportunity to present the findings in the Netherlands last July.

New medical missions are on hold while she completes intensive hospital-based training. “I’m doing outpatient first. Obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, internal and family medicine and psychiatry. Plus I have surgery two times a month,” she enthuses. She likes seeing what each specialty entails, but there’s a problem. “So far, I like everything. I’m going to have a hard time choosing. I know for sure I want to do humanitarian medicine and international health. But whether it’s surgery or primary care, I have no idea.”

She does share a long-term goal with sister Kobuke, recovered and recently graduated from Hawaiʻi Pacific University with a master’s in social work. “I want to get a grant, so I work with the nonprofit organization called Foster Family Programs of Hawaiʻi. I would like to start some sort of transitioning workshop or program to help foster children who are aging out of the system,” Tumbaga explains. She’d like to write a book for foster kids and find a publisher to print it pro bono so the money raised from sales could benefit the program.

She believes people will help, because she’s been helped by people like her organic chemistry professor, Jan Smith. “Every time I needed something I went to see her. She can make the student succeed if the student is willing. She has been a mentor and a lifelong friend,” Tumbaga says. “I’m very, very lucky. Because I think half of it is me, and half of it is what’s out there and how willing am I to go for it.”

Read more stories in The Urge to Do Good series:

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  1. Bonita says:

    November 14th, 2008at 11:04 am(#)

    this is such an amazing story! thank you Dr. Tumbaga for the work you do and for being such an inspiration!