Rosa’s Choice

| October 14, 2016

A trailblazing alumna and surgeon-engineer describes how she lived in two countries and between two dreams at once

Rosa Navarro's 1978 yearbook picture from Santa Ana High School. Photo courtesy of Rosa Navarro.

Rosa Navarro’s 1978 yearbook picture from Santa Ana High School. Photo courtesy of Rosa Navarro.

At the U.S.-Mexico border, an immigration officer rubber stamps a passport and unlocks a padlock on a metal door: “¡Bienvenido a Tijuana”

With that bit of perfunctory etiquette, the metal door opens, and Rosa Navarro, ’85 electrical and biomedical engineering, steps back into the country she left as a young girl.

“Crossing the border changes your mindset,” she said. “It’s like stepping back in time.” Ahead is the arch on the Avenida Revolución, like a portal to another world.

When Rosa was eight, she lived in both worlds at once.

“I spent my childhood speaking English in the day and Spanish at night.”

These days, when Rosa returns to her native home, she returns as Dr. Navarro, an internationally renowned expert in neuromodulation who merged engineering and medicine to invent a novel way to treat chronic pain. The girl who witnessed pain and suffering as a child returns to treat the physical pains of so many of her people.

Dreams have no borders, only horizons

Tijuana is known as the most-visited border city on the planet. A food lover’s paradise, it’s steaming with flavors for those willing to get lost among its grids of unmarked streets. The Blue Line of the San Diego Trolley’s San Ysidro stop puts you within walking distance of the international crossing via a pedestrian bridge. Here, the border is marked with double and even triple fencing. In between the fences is “no-man’s land,” an area that the U.S. Border Patrol monitors with bright lights, armored trucks, and cameras.

At dawn, back in 1967, “the lady in the station wagon” would pick her up and drive her across the border, dropping her off at a small Catholic school near San Diego.

At night, back in Tijuana, she watched her mother, Lucia Navarro, a dressmaker, bring grace to every gesture as she put the finishing touches on the wedding gowns and quinceañera dresses that were financing her and her younger brother’s American education. They lived across the street from an orphanage, constant witnesses to the realities of hardship.

“I grew up thinking I never want to be poor and hungry again.”

-Dr. Rosa Navarro

“I don’t recall ever going to a movie theater because it cost money,” said Rosa. “We just didn’t splurge. I grew up thinking I never want to be poor and hungry again.”

Rosa’s father, Daniel Navarro, was a jeweler and watchmaker who had inherited a patch of land from his father who purchased it long before Tijuana became the Vegas of Mexico or native son Carlos Santana put it in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Graceful gestures and objects of fascination were everywhere in the modest Navarro household: the stirring of sauces long to thicken; her mother’s needle threading the silk with pearls, beads, and sequins; her father adjusting the miniature gears and springs, setting the watch alive and ticking.

These were all young Rosa’s fixations growing up, and they accumulated into a love of engineering, mathematics, and above all, medicine.

“I dreamt of being a doctor since I was a little girl,” Rosa said. But despite their never-ending work, the Navarro family was struggling and the path wasn’t clear to her. What did she need to do to become a doctor? How much would school cost? Her parents didn’t know the answers.

Said Rosa, “My mother and father had an elementary school education. Once I reached high school, they could not help me. They were proud of me, but I was basically on my own. ‘Whatever you want to be, Rosa,’ they’d say.”

The Tijuana of Rosa's childhood. Avenida Revolución in the 1960s.

The Tijuana of Rosa’s childhood. Avenida Revolución in the 1960s.

In a class full of smart kids, she was one of the smartest, especially with numbers. She also became a veritable competitor in tennis, a sport that pushed her concentration, confidence and limiting beliefs – a perfect metaphor for bouncing across borders while quieting the mind and avoiding self-sabotage – the “inner game”.

The 1978 graduating class of Santa Ana High voted her “Most Likely to Succeed”. The girl who crossed the dusty border in a beat up station wagon was facing a wide-open horizon before her.

While attending a math summer camp for minority students, Rosa was noticed by Paul David Arthur, a mechanical engineering professor at UC Irvine, who was so impressed with her mathematical abilities that he drove across the border to plead with her parents to let her go to an American college.

“She has a future in engineering,” Dr. Arthur told them.

Her parents looked at her. Their hopes, their sacrifices, their dreams for Rosa came to this moment. “Is this what you want to be, mija? ” they asked her.

“I knew what a doctor was, but what was an engineer? What did an engineer’s day look like? I’m totally clueless,” Rosa remembered thinking.

Grateful that Dr. Arthur saw her potential, yet blind to the profession, Rosa made a life decision that summer. She was going to be an engineer. And she was going to start at USC.

New beginnings disguised as painful endings

It was the support that drew her to join the Trojans. She received a scholarship from the USC Mexican-American Alumni Association, a university scholarship coupled with several engineering scholarships.

“Lots of scholarships,” Rosa said. “That’s how I made it to USC.” One summer she sold cars for Ford. Then, she did a stint as a courier delivering packages across Los Angeles. She was also a nanny.

Three USC students stopping for a chat on Trousdale in 1980 when Rosa was a student.

Three USC students stopping for a chat on Trousdale in 1980 when Rosa was a student.

All of this balanced with the overwhelming course-load of a double major: electrical and biomedical engineering.

Somehow Rosa also found the time to fall in love and marry a fellow student. She gave birth to a son, Arthur, named after the professor who inspired her to become an engineer. Unfortunately, the marriage was short lived and soon Rosa found herself a full-time student and single mother working to support her education and her son.

The dream of being a doctor was suddenly and painfully out of reach.

“My son was with me throughout all those challenges,” Rosa said. “And my inspiration to keep going.”

She joined Dr. Eugene Albright’s lab in what is now the Keck School of Medicine of USC as his research assistant and stayed close to the heart of medicine for the last two years of college.

When Rosa graduated in 1985, she remembers being “the only Hispanic woman in the engineering graduating class.” It was then that she realized what a trailblazer she truly was.

Sadly, her parents were unable to share in the momentous occasion. They celebrated her from afar. The family she had become close with, the ones she babysat for, attended as surrogates alongside little Arthur.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) immediately recruited her. She stayed on for six years as part of the scale integration design team. Rosa described her work as “basically, reverse-engineering microprocessors to detect faults in parts that NASA sent to space.”

By twenty-four, Rosa had become a sought-after speaker, representing JPL at international conferences in Italy and Mexico.

Those visits to Mexico rekindled the doctor dream like never before. Being an internationally toured speaker for NASA felt like a career high, but it just wasn’t enough. Not when the dream of that little girl crossing the border remained unfulfilled.

“Is this what you want to be, mija?” still lingered. Especially now that Arthur was growing up.

“Time to chase the dream again. For me and for Arthur.”

-Dr. Rosa Navarro

She decided she was going to take the MCAT. Arthur was six years old and about to start elementary school. “If I’m ever going to do this, now is the time,” Rosa remembered telling herself. “Time to chase the dream again. For me and for Arthur.”

To her shock, no less then six medical schools accepted her. She chose the University of Illinois. Her engineering background immediately made her a standout student. She even created a job for herself:

“I paid my way through medical school by opening a computer lab for medical students. We didn’t have a way to produce notes en masse.”

She repaired donated computers, created a LAN network, and devised a systems approach to sharing anatomy class notes.

“My engineering skills paid off.”

Rosa finished her residency in anesthesiology at the University of Chicago. She went on to complete a pain management fellowship at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C..  Back home in Tijuana, her family stood a little taller among neighbors and friends. Rosa had become a doctor, and not just anywhere, in America’s capital.

The good doctor

Today, Dr. Rosa Navarro has her own private practice treating acute and chronic pain in Chula Vista, California – Navarro Pain Control Group, Inc. – servicing primarily the Hispanic community. Part surgeon, part engineer, Dr. Navarro implants medical devices designed by her to treat conditions such as back and neck pain, degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis and cancer pain among others.

She also holds several medical technology patents, is the treasurer of the North American Society of Women in Neuromodulation and board certified in anesthesiology and pain medicine.

Dr. Rosa Navarro at her clinic with a spinal cord model. Photo courtesy of Rosa Navarro.

Rosa’s patents include a novel system for treating pain using spinal cord stimulation and peripheral subcutaneous stimulation separately or in combination.

She surgically implants a device configured to deliver electrical signals between a patient’s subcutaneous lumbar region and the spinal cord. Not only does it treat patients who either can’t take or are otherwise unresponsive to certain pain meds, her innovative therapy accelerates the body’s natural ability to heal itself.

At Caltech, she also met her future husband, a biomedical engineer who worked on JPL’s hypercube, and who is now an anesthesiologist himself. The couple’s son, Gregory, is now in the process of applying to USC to study engineering. In fact, both of Rosa’s sons followed in her footsteps.

Arthur is now a mechanical engineer who was instrumental in the building of the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington D.C..

“Before my father passed away, he was a role model to my oldest boy and his love of construction passed on to Arthur,” said Rosa.

As for her mother, she is now 85 and lives with Rosa and her husband in their San Diego home.

Rosa never forgot where she came from and continues to give talks and attend conferences tirelessly throughout Mexico, inspiring young people to never stop pursuing their dreams:

“Always have your goal in front of you and stay focused. So many things can happen to you in life. Bring it back into focus and stay on target. Make that commitment.”