Saludos Hispanos

NEUROSURGEON COMES FULL CIRCLE The skinny little kid who got beat up in his Montebello neighborhood made his way through Harvard Medical School and now performs complex, painstaking spine operations at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He also does research aimed at using new young cells to fix crushed or crumbling spinal disks, and he’s working to organize a back-care program at a free clinic in the East Los Angeles area where he grew up. Big opportunities didn’t knock often in the tough, predominantly Latino neighborhood where neurosurgeon Frank L. Acosta, Jr., M.D., got his start. But Acosta, 35, the son of a now-retired police detective and a legal secretary, found strengths in himself that propelled him through medical school and gave him compassion for the patients in his care. He was an easy target most of his younger years, ending up bloodied and bruised often. Even the “cool” friends of his younger sister – she’s now a nurse at Cedars-Sinai – made fun of him. “I was short and skinny and had big glasses. The only thing I can remember being able to control that made me feel good about myself was getting good grades. For some reason, I just knew that if I wanted to get a better life, the best thing I could do was get good grades,” says Acosta, director of spine deformity in Cedars-Sinai’s Department of Neurosurgery. His parents divorced when Acosta was 3, and his dad moved to West L.A. His mom, who did her best to work and to raise two kids, couldn’t always be home when her son needed support. “I often had to console myself to get through difficult times, and I think I developed some good coping skills I can share,” he says. “I know how tough it is to not have someone around who understands, and I get satisfaction when I can say to my patients, ‘I’m here for you.’” Acosta took advanced classes, earned excellent grades in high school and applied to about 15 colleges – all the Ivies and prestigious colleges in California. He was accepted by all and chose to go to Harvard – at age 17. “This was a real affirmation of my efforts and it had a lot of impact on my self-esteem issues. Getting on that plane to Harvard was everything I had wanted up until then. It was exciting, and it was nerve-racking. I knew I wasn’t the typical person going to Harvard. I had never been outside of L.A., had never seen snow, and I hadn’t been around many people outside of my ethnic group,” Acosta recalls. When the excitement wore off, he quickly felt out of place in the tradition-bound Ivy League institution, where his first roommate was a third-generation Harvard student. S A L U D O S H I S P A N O S