When mother and daughter posed for the viral photo, Johana Peña was a medical student taking part in a program at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland, Calif. Her mother, Cristina Peña, was a custodian at the hospital.
“It’s crazy how life works sometimes,” Peña tweeted with the photo. “I get to work with my mom, at the same hospital in the same department. She has been a janitor here for 18 years. She raised a Latina physician in the making! Thank you, mama, I am so proud to be your daughter!”
The photo was taken in 2019, but Peña tweeted it last week to thank her mother for years of support and showing her a strong work ethic. Now that she is applying for residency at hospitals across the country, she wanted the world to know her mother helped make her dream of becoming a psychiatrist possible, she said.
Peña, 29, is a fourth-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine in Grand Rapids, where she received a partial scholarship.
It’s crazy how life works sometimes. I get to work with my mom, at the same hospital in the same department. She has been a janitor here for 18 years. She raised a Latina physician in the making! Thank you ama, I am so proud to be your daughter! #MedTwitter @LatinasInMed pic.twitter.com/35PlBZzi6b— Johana Peña (@JohanaYPena) October 9, 2021
The photo, which Peña posted Oct. 9, touched a nerve across the Internet as people admired both mother and daughter.
“Your mother does important work,” wrote one person. “Imagine how the hospital environment would be without her. Yes, being a doctor is great, but people wouldn’t get very far without the folks who take care of the dirty work.”
A man from Florida tweeted: “Wow! Amazing and inspiring. Here’s to our Spanish mamas who put everything out there for their kids.”
Cristina Peña, 51, was brought to tears by the comments. Her daughter read several of them to her since Cristina Peña, now a U.S. citizen, has limited English skills, she said.
“My parents came here from Mexico when they were 18, in search of the American Dream,” said Peña. “They worked hard so they could raise a family and give us a better life.”
Her father, Nicolas Peña, was 21 when he badly injured his back in a work accident, she said.
“He was working in a warehouse and a large container fell on him,” she said. “He was in chronic pain for many years and couldn’t work. So my dad stayed home to look after me and my three siblings and my mom became the sole financial provider for our family.”
Her father was the one who combed her hair, made her breakfast and drove her to school, noted Peña, while her mom took several housekeeping jobs at a time to pay the bills.
“I’ve always been so proud of both of [my parents],” said Peña. “Knowing what they had sacrificed made me want to work harder.”
From an early age, Peña said she had a desire to help her father heal physically and emotionally after his accident.
“He had endured so much pain, and I’d seen how that affected him,” she said. “And I’d also seen the toll that mental health issues had taken on people in my community.”
“Oakland was a tough place to grow up,” she added. “It’s an underserved community, and I decided that I wanted to help address some of the problems.”
Peña won a scholarship and attended the University of California at Berkeley, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in public health in 2014.
Her score on the medical college admissions test (MCAT) was lower than she hoped, and she was rejected by all 15 medical schools she applied to in 2015 and 2016.
She said she felt defeated and lost, and was certain her dream of becoming a psychiatrist was over.
Her parents doubled down on their encouragement.
“I was the first person in my family to graduate from college and they wouldn’t let me give up,” recalled Peña.
“They kept pushing me and encouraged me to study and take the medical exam again to get a higher score,” she said. “Pretty soon, my dream to become a doctor became bigger than itself. It represented a dream for my parents and my community.”
She decided to take the test again, but she realized that at home, it was too noisy and crowded to effectively study with three younger siblings coming and going. So she decided to motivate herself by studying in a hospital environment — a place where she could envision herself working one day.
For most of 2017, she went to work with her mother, and while her mother cleaned patient rooms, Peña sat in the cafeteria studying all day.
“The hospital was not only a perfect place for me to study, it had another huge benefit: I could be near my mother,” said Peña. “While she was upstairs, cleaning, I was downstairs studying. I loved knowing she was nearby.”
The two would share a lunch break together, then drive home at night.
“It’s something I’ll always carry with me — my mom would check on me during her breaks and give me the encouragement I needed to get through,” she said. “It made all the difference.”
Christina Peña said she was delighted her daughter chose the hospital cafeteria as her spot to study.
“I was extremely proud to know that Johana was in such close proximity to me in the workplace,” she said.
“I always tried to encourage her in all that she is doing and have faith that things will work out,” she added.
In 2017, Peña received a higher score on her second exam and was accepted to Michigan State’s medical program in 2018. In 2019, she applied and was accepted to participate in a one-month, integrated health-care program at the same hospital where she’d studied and had lunch with her mother for a year.
“For four weeks, I was able to work with different physicians throughout the hospital and learn about serving communities in the Bay Area,” she said. “And during that time, a friend of my mom’s took a photo of us together. I was happy to be back with her again.”
As she accompanied doctors on their rounds, Peña said she recalled all that time she'd spent in the hospital cafeteria, studying for her second medical exam.
Now that Peña is applying for psychiatry residency programs — including one at the hospital where she studied for her medical exams — her parents said they will continue cheering her on.
“Ever since she was a little girl, she always said she wanted to be a doctor, and in a matter of months, that will come to full fruition,” said Nicolas Peña, 51.
“She has always been really in tune with her culture, heritage and sense of community, which is honestly one of the main motivating factors that fuels her drive to be a doctor,” he added. “She is a great role model and mentor and continues to impress me with every milestone she passes.”
Cristina Peña said that all the years of polishing floors and emptying garbage cans have been worthwhile to see her oldest daughter achieve her goals.
“Her story — our story, is one of hope, especially for immigrants in search of a better life,” she said. “Despite all obstacles, Johana was able to overcome them.”
Have a story for Inspired Life? Here’s how to submit.