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Distinguished Alumni: Josefina Dominguez fought long odds on her path to a medical career

Josefina Dominguez, recipient of a Distinguished Service Award from the Sac State Alumni Association, is a vascular surgeon at Sutter Medical Center, and one of the few women in that specialty.

From her childhood home in a rural town with one stoplight and few academic role models, Josefina Dominguez charted a lonely path toward becoming a doctor.

She was unsure where to begin. No one in her immediate family had pursued a university degree. A high school counselor advised against it. Her mother was supportive, but she was a single parent who worked several jobs and struggled financially.

“I really didn’t have any guidance,” Dominguez said. “I didn’t even know how to apply. But I knew I wanted to do something big.”

Today, Dominguez is a vascular surgeon for Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento, treating patients stricken with dangerous and potentially deadly diseases of the blood vessels. For her dedication and achievements, Dominguez is the recipient of a Distinguished Service Award from the Sacramento State Alumni Association.

Her path to a career in medicine began after graduating high school in Kelseyville in Lake County, when she discovered Sacramento State’s Summer Bridge Academy. The program supports incoming students who have academic potential but face economic and other obstacles to completing their educations.

Summer Bridge and other programs on campus helped Dominguez navigate college life and earn a degree in Biology in 2008. She received her medical degree from the University of Washington in Seattle and completed a residency at the University of Southern California in the highly competitive and male-dominated field of vascular surgery.

Josefina Dominguez portrait
After a difficult first few months at Sac State, Josefina Dominguez said she eventually "had so much support" and "got everything I needed to succeed" on her path to a medical degree. (Sacramento State/Student Affairs Marketing and Communications)

“Not only is she an excellent surgeon, but she is a truly compassionate individual who fully immerses herself in caring for underserved patients, often saving their limbs and their lives,” said Dr. Thomas C. Park, medical director of surgery at Sutter Medical Center and chair of Sutter Medical Group’s board of directors.

Dominguez recalls her first months at Sac State as isolating and intimidating. Although she had been an excellent student in high school, her University science courses were challenging. To pay rent, she worked part time, including in undergraduate labs where she tended to animals and plants.

“It was difficult,” she said. “I had to study and work very hard to catch up.” She leaned on faculty members who acted as mentors, and took part in programs including Science Educational Equity, which seeks to improve ethnic, cultural, and gender diversity in research and education.

By the time she entered medical school, Dominguez felt academically and emotionally ready. “I had so much support at Sac State,” she said. “I got everything I needed to succeed.”

As a surgical resident at USC, Dominguez was one of the few women in her chosen specialty. She felt, she said, as though “women had to work a little bit harder” to prove themselves.

During her second year of training, she gave birth to her daughter, who is now 7 years old.

“I was on call on the day of my due date,” she said, and took a few weeks off after the birth. “I couldn’t show any weakness, and I didn’t want to be treated differently.”

She chose vascular surgery because of its complexity, precision, and potential to save and improve the lives of patients “almost instantaneously” in many cases, she said. Common procedures include surgical removal of plaque in carotid arteries to prevent strokes, repairing aneurysms, performing angioplasty to unblock clogged arteries, and saving limbs that might otherwise have to be amputated. She recently performed a delicate operation on a patient who suffered from chronic abdominal pain, improving the young woman’s life immediately.

“I’m able to develop a relationship with my patients,” she said. “I didn’t want to be a doctor who pulls out a gallbladder and never sees the patient again.”

Sac State Biology Professor Jennifer Lundmark called Dominguez a role model for countless students who enter college under less-than-ideal circumstances.

“She represents a dream realized for both herself and for the countless students like her that we see every day,” said Lundmark, who served as Dominguez’s academic counselor.

Dominguez said she “truly loves” her job and is grateful to Sac State for giving her the help and confidence to pursue a medical career.

“One of the things I learned at Sac State was that if you really want to accomplish something, there is help; there is a way,” she said. “Never let your circumstances hold you back from doing what you want to do.”

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About Cynthia Hubert

Cynthia Hubert came to Sacramento State in November 2018 after an award-winning career writing for the Sacramento Bee. Cynthia believes everyone has a good story. She lives in East Sacramento with her two cats, who enjoy bird-watching from their perch next to the living-room window.

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