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William Mundo Draws on Lessons from His Father and Public Health Education to Forge Budding Career in Emergency Medicine

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Written by Tyler Smith on February 15, 2024

Dr. William Mundo didn’t know it at the time, but his career in public health and medicine sprang from the seeds planted in an unlikely setting: a snowy pre-dawn morning in a trailer on the outskirts of Leadville, Colorado.

Mundo, now a second-year resident in Emergency Medicine at Denver Health Medical Center,was just seven or eight years old as he peeked through a trailer window, watching his dad talk to a young couple holding a bag of fruit. Their tiny daughter grabbed her belly in obvious pain. Mundo cracked his bedroom door to observe as his father invited the threesome inside and examined the little girl, who recoiled in pain when he gently touched her stomach.

You should go to the emergency room, Mundo’s father told the parents. Your daughter could have something really bad and need surgery. The couple left quietly with their daughter, leaving the bag of fruit behind as payment.

An early lesson in caring for patients

“He was a traditional healer,” Mundo said of his father, an immigrant from Mexico with little formal education who cared for people with plant medicine, massage, cleansing prayer, and other techniques he learned in his indigenous community and brought to the United States.

Mundo was to later recognize that the drama he watched with the little girl and her parents showed that his father clearly saw and held paramount the needs of his patients. By example, his father demonstrated what it meant to be a doctor.

“He knew that there were things beyond his realm that need to be seen by someone else,” Mundo said. He was also to learn that his father didn’t charge people for his care. A bag of fruit or a small bundle of wood served as the coins of the healthcare realm for those with minimal resources.

The path to public health

The experience paved not only Mundo’s path to a career in medicine but also an abiding commitment to public health. He earned a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in 2018 from the Colorado School of Public Health before moving on to med school at CU.

The MPH degree wasn’t planned. After graduating from high school and enrolling in the University of Colorado Denver – he is the first in his family to get a college education – Mundo began pre-med work as a biology major. But an Ethnic Studies course opened his eyes to the health inequities that had been around him all his life.

“We lived in a community miles away from the closest grocery story and had limited access to transportation,” Mundo said. “I thought that was normal.”

The Ethnic Studies course changed that perspective. He began to consider that access to housing, food, medicine, education, and many other factors were all key determinants of health. That awareness struck home – literally – and took his life in a new direction.

“I saw I was surrounded by public health issues all my life. I just didn’t realize they were issues,” he said. “I learned that health and wellness is more than going to doctor visits or the things that happen within the walls of a clinic. As a future doctor, I wanted to have an understanding and perspective to think about the other things that contribute to health – not just the disease process itself but the context in which diseases develop.”

Public health and medicine meld

As an emergency medicine physician today, Mundo said he constantly applies what he learned during his MPH studies. He treats their acute conditions, but also pays attention to the social and economic factors that may affect their well-being and overall health after they leave his care.

“I am able to make impacts on people’s lives through direct medical care, but by learning and practicing public health, I am able to do that on a larger scale,” he said. “When I am coming up with a plan for a patient getting ready for discharge from the ER, I ask, ‘Where do you live and sleep? Is there a pharmacy near you?’ and other things we may not think about as medical doctors.”

Mundo has also carried his public health commitment beyond the walls of the emergency room. For example, he served as a consultant to Responder Alliance, an organization dedicated to bolstering resilience among healthcare workers and other professionals vulnerable to mental health stress and burnout from exposure to trauma. Mundo’s work supported Colorado Senate Bill 21-245, which aimed to bolster mental health services for back-country search-and-rescue teams.

Gaining a world perspective

Far from a one-off, the Responder Alliance work built on Mundo’s MPH studies and degree in Global Health Systems Management and Policy. As an MPH student, he collaborated with ColoradoSPH faculty to work on a needs assessment for providing hypertension services in Guatemala’s public health system. He contributed to a 2021 report on the findings of the work.

That visit was Mundo’s second trip to Guatemala. He was an undergraduate when he decided to set aside the usual spring break routine of beach-lounging and margarita-sipping in favor oflearning about Guatemala’s culture and traditions. He worked on projects aimed at reducing the country’s sugar consumption by increasing stevia production and designing stoves to reduce harmful indoor air emissions.

Mundo’s undergraduate visit to Guatemala spurred later trips to Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru. The various experiences all contributed to a broadened perspective on public health, he said.

“When you work in other countries, you realize that with a different set of resources, you have to be innovative, flexible, and pragmatic, particularly when it comes to implementing projects and collaborating with community partners,” he said. “We also need to approach our work through the lens of the communities themselves and be focused on their needs rather than assuming what we think is best.”

Those lessons hearken back to the example of his father’s application of traditional healing, not only in his native Mexico, but also in resource-deprived communities in the United States.

“Western medicine approaches don’t really work in a lot of settings across the world,” Mundo said. “You have to check your biases, privileges, and experiences.”

Putting experiences to the page

Not yet 30, Mundo nonetheless has a rich story that stretches from the Leadville trailer to more than a decade of classroom, clinical, and travel experience. He steadily chronicled it all in self-reflective pieces that he ultimately transformed into a book, From Margins to Medicine: A First-Generation Student Health Equity Guide on Overcoming Adversity with Diversity,” published in 2021.

“I never imagined writing a book,” Mundo admits. But his wife’s encouragement and his own experience as a child and teenager who never dreamed of being a doctor convinced him that meeting the challenge could do some good.

“I never met a doctor who looked like me and represented who I am,” Mundo said. “Providing support and advice on how to achieve the things that I have is the biggest contribution I can make to society. I want to encourage people from similar backgrounds to shoot for the stars and realize that it is possible to do it.”

A future of service to those most in need

Halfway through his residency, Mundo looks forward to a career that would ideally blend direct patient care in underserved communities with research, teaching, and inspiring the next generation of doctors. He sees emergency medicine, informed by a passion for public health, as the best route to meeting those goals, particularly in an era of badly strained healthcare resources.

“I am attracted by the sense of urgency to care for people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds,” Mundo said. “Emergency medicine speaks to me about my life mission. I recognize the amount of suffering [caused by] a lack of public health measures and support.”