During a Journey Marked by Family Tragedy, Med Student Persevered

Jessica Pinto
Jessica Pinto will begin a three-year internal medicine residency at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University

Jessica Pinto was one of 186 NJMS students who learned where they would complete their medical training during a virtual Match Day event

When Jessica Pinto’s 17-year-old brother died suddenly in 2018, she wasn’t sure whether she should continue her studies to become a physician or take time off to grieve.

But her father, who immigrated to the United States from Portugal with only a limited education when he was 22, encouraged his daughter to stay the course at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. Her brother wouldn’t want anything less, her father told her.

Pinto, who has earned accolades for both her academic accomplishments and community outreach, learned Friday that she would begin a three-year internal medicine residency at the University of Washington in Seattle, her first choice.

Commencement 2021
Rutgers Today will be profiling some of our outstanding grads throughout the spring. Meet the Class of 2021 and read about the challenges they overcame.

She and tens of thousands of medical school students throughout the country and around the world were part of virtual Match Day events when 186 NJMS students learned where they would complete their medical training: Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Massachusetts General Hospital, NYU, Stanford, UCSF and the University of Pennsylvania.

“I am overwhelmed with joy and so excited to begin this new chapter in my life,” said Pinto, who will graduate from NJMS in May. Her match means she can join her fiancé, Ricardo Pulido, who is doing his residency at the University of Washington in Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery. “I’m feeling very blessed for this opportunity.”

It was Pulido who Pinto confided in about her fear and uncertainty about continuing her studies so soon after her brother passed away.

“I know the pain of losing a loved one and kept asking myself how I would cope with losing patients knowing this pain,” said Pinto, who still becomes emotional at times when talking about her brother, Jason.

He was diagnosed at 15 with a Chiari malformation and was being monitored by doctors. The rarely fatal congenital abnormality between the base of the skull and the brain can cause a variety of symptoms including headaches, muscle weakness, ringing in the ears and dizziness.

Neurosurgeons determined that Jason needed to have surgery to relieve the pressure between his brain stem and spinal cord that was being caused by the malformation. Unfortunately, Jason passed away in his sleep four days before he was scheduled for surgery, during his senior year of high school.

“It was really hard to go back to medical school, but I received such support from the faculty and my classmates, and I knew that I needed to be strong for my parents,” she said.

Another family illness had inspired Pinto’s interest in medicine. Her grandfather was diagnosed with stage 3 chronic kidney disease due to years of uncontrolled high blood pressure. This occurred while she was an undergraduate student at Rutgers University-New Brunswick majoring in biological sciences. It made her realize the importance of preventative medicine and how it may have altered the course of her grandfather’s health.

“I began to wonder how different his retirement and quality of life would have been if he were to have had health insurance, access to care, fewer language barriers and good follow up with a physician,” Pinto said about her grandfather, who worked in a factory and didn’t have health care until he got Medicare when he turned 65.

So, Pinto applied and was accepted into NJMS. She was inducted into the NJMS chapter of the Gold Humanism Honor Society – an organization that recognizes students who exemplify compassionate patient care and serve as role models, mentors and leaders in medicine.  She also was inducted into the prestigious Alpha Omega Alpha national medical society in honor of her commitment to professionalism, leadership, scholarship, research and community service.

The community service initiative closest to Pinto’s heart, the Ironbound Initiative in Newark, is a student-run organization that addresses the needs of both documented and undocumented immigrants who have little access to health care and are challenged by language and cultural barriers.

The program offers blood pressure screenings, provides information about preventative care, holds health fairs in the community and does what it can to minimize the health care gap in order to overcome barriers to care.

“My goal is to work where there is a culturally diverse group of patients that need good medical care,” said Pinto, who is trilingual and speaks English, Portuguese and Spanish. “We need to address the social determinants of health care. I saw this firsthand with my grandfather.”

Mercedes Rivero, assistant dean for admissions at NJMS, who met Pinto five years ago when she was considering applying for early decision to NJMS and needed some advice, always had great faith in Pinto.

“She shared her family’s mantra, “A esperança nunca morre,” which means “Hope never dies” in Portuguese. Needless to say, I was impressed and quickly became her biggest fan,” said Rivero.

As Pinto embarks on the next step of her medical career, Rivero says she has renewed faith in the strength of the human spirit because of Pinto. “Her humility and compassion for others have never wavered,” said Rivero. “But Jessica’s strength and resolve simply amaze me and leave me very hopeful for the future of medicine.”