Life’s path can be a burdensome one to follow, a labyrinthine passage wrought with too many decisions and defeats, and entangled with the thorny obstacles of disappointment that drag many of us to the waiting depths of mediocrity and melancholy. For others, the road is unencumbered, free from vexing pit falls and as clearly defined as a trusted old road map.
Valerie Espinosa is one such person. Which is not to say she hasn’t had her share of life’s setbacks, hardships and sacrifices. rather, it’s in how Espinosa has conquered such impediments, learned from troublesome circumstances and maintained a positive outlook that define her as an enterprising and high-spirited woman who is admired and revered by many. She is, in a nutshell, the kind of woman many of us aspire to be: compassionate, smart, funny and driven to make the world a better place.
Just What The Doctor Ordered
A doctor specializing in endocrinology and metabolism at Texas Diabetes & Endocrinology in Austin , Espinosa, now in her mid-40s, has dedicated much of her life to the field of medicine. And though her studies have periodically forced her to make some difficult choices, it’s a career Espinosa embraces willingly, and one she’s dreamt about since she was a child growing up in San Antonio.
“Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a doctor,” Espinosa says. “I guess it was somewhat of a child’s fantasy that I didn’t let go of; I just stuck with it. It’s been hard, but the good thing about medicine is that there’s always another challenge, and that helps keep you on your toes. In the end, I found it suits me and I’ve learned to really enjoy it.”
Espinosa’s schooling, like that of many doctors, was extensive, demanding and exasperatingly thorough. She received her undergraduate degree in biology from the University of Texas in Austin before returning to San Antonio to obtain her medical degree from the UT Health Science Center. She later spent four years in Boston completing her internal medicine residency, as well as her chief residency, at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center. Trading the cold Massachusetts nights for Central Texas’ blistering heat, Espinosa then returned to Austin, where she practiced internal medicine for five years.
But while working with underserved patients, many of whom were struggling to stay above the poverty line, she discovered an excess of patients suffering from diabetes. Such recurring episodes led Espinosa to be more and more drawn to the specialty field of endocrinology, the study of hormonal disorders. So, despite having already completed her medical schooling, and working as an accomplished internist for five years, Espinosa decided to further enhance her medical knowledge and headed to Chicago for a two-year fellowship in endocrinology and metabolism at the University of Illinois.
“It was actually a really enjoyable experience for me,” says Espinosa, who convinced her longtime partner, Elvia Mendoza, to come along for the undertaking. “We had a blast there for two years.”
Upon returning to Austin in 2005 after completing her fellowship, Espinosa was asked by the founder of Texas Diabetes & Endocrinology, Dr. Thomas Blevins, to join the practice. Though her average workday is packed with patient visits, paperwork and phone consultations with other doctors, Espinosa says she wouldn’t trade her position for the world.
“I see a lot of really sick people who other doctors aren’t really sure how to help,” she says. “It feels good to know that I can help those patients with some of the new technologies that are now available and really provide a service for the community. I most enjoy my interactions with people, both my patients and colleagues. I couldn’t ask for better colleagues. I just love it here.”
Valerie Davis, principal and CEO of Austin -based public relations and advertising agency Enviromedia, and a longtime friend of Espinosa’s, says she’s not at all surprised by Espinosa’s career success, and remembers years ago when the two attended UT together, how strong Espinosa’s drive was.
“When she and all her friends from San Antonio moved in next door to me in 1983, they were some rowdy freshmen,” Davis says, fondly. “But Val did say back then, rowdy as she was, that she was going to be a doctor. Low and behold, I watched her go to medical school, do her residency in Boston, complete her fellowship in Chicago, and then join the practice here in Austin. I’m really proud of her.”
A few years ago, Espinosa became a partner, buying in to the Texas Diabetes & Endocrinology practice, a business that continues to remain successful and recently added another location. Dr. Blevins, a renowned endocrinologist and internist in his own right, refers to Espinosa as an “excellent diagnostician,” and says she’s been a wonderful addition to his medical staff.
“Valerie brings much experience and expertise to the practice,” Blevins says. “she is one of the most caring and compassionate doctors I know. She works hard for her patients and she is a pleasure to work with.”
The pitter-patter of little feet
Espinosa’s days are mostly dedicated to her work. And though she still volunteers at Seton McCarthy Community Health Center once a month and longs to add to her medical knowledge by receiving a certification in lipids, she says that effort may have to wait a few years, namely so she and Mendoza can dedicate more time to the newest member of their family.
“I’m definitely pretty busy with work and that can sometimes be a challenge when I’d like to spend more time with my family,” Espinosa says. “Now, that’s more important than ever since Elvia and I adopted a little boy a year ago this past September. He is my everything.”
For the 12 years they’ve been together (Davis and her partner Millie Salinas credit themselves for introducing the couple at a New Year’s Eve party in 1997), Espinosa and Mendoza have dreamt of becoming mothers. But with Espinosa’s career and Mendoza’s PH.D. studies in cultural anthropology taking center stage, the two women questioned whether they’d ever make that dream a reality. But in 2007, the couple decided to begin the process of adopting a little girl, a trial that Espinosa says “totally changed our lives.” Though they’d planned to adopt from somewhere in the United states, Espinosa and Mendoza learned after several months that, despite adoption agencies’ pledge that same-sex couples are welcome, two lesbians (or gay men, for that matter) adopting a child in this country is still viewed as taboo by many agencies. But, as Espinosa is disposed to do, she overcame the hardship and searched excitedly for other options.
“We wanted to adopt a girl from China,” she says, “but then China was closed to adoption. So we looked at Vietnam and started going through filling out all the paperwork when we got a call from an agency saying there was a boy just born in Guatemala and did we want him.”
Espinosa was immediately on the phone with Mendoza, the two discussing whether this revelation was fate or simply another obstacle to building the family they wanted.
“Elvia and I were completely freaked out,” Espinosa jokes. “and we both had fears about a boy growing up without a father. But when we really thought about it, we just didn’t think we could pass up the opportunity.”
Espinosa chose the first name Joakuin, and Mendoza chose his middle name: Tzakol, a reference to Mayan culture.
Born in July 2007, Joakuin stayed with a foster family until Espinosa and Mendoza could make the trip to Guatemala to meet him and bring him back home to Texas in September 2008. Espinosa admits that, as a couple, she and Mendoza were concerned about that first meeting, that they may scare the little boy or confuse him.
“I remember being at the hotel in Guatemala and getting the call saying he was waiting for us in the hotel lobby. When we came down, we were so nervous, but he just smiled, and when we picked him up he was happy and very kissy,” Espinosa says, her own smile widening across her face. “He didn’t cry at all. He’s such a happy baby.”
Though the adoption didn’t come without its own turmoil – Espinosa had to adopt Joakuin on her own from Guatemala, signing paperwork with several caveats – the process went smoothly enough, and upon returning to Texas, Espinosa and Mendoza were able to co-adopt their new baby boy.
Today, the toughest challenge the couple faces comes not in changing diapers or learning how to raise a boy, but in finding time for each other with such busy schedules. Still, they are a happy, tight-knit family unit that works through time constraints and inflexible certainties.
“You should see the way Joakuin runs to Valerie when she comes home,” Mendoza says. “There’s just a trail of little feet pitter-pattering on the floor yelling, ‘Mami’ all the way until he finally reaches her and Valerie greets and kisses him with so much joy. I feel fortunate with both Valerie and Joakuin, to be surrounded with so much love, joy, kindness and good intentions. Valerie is beautiful with Joakuin. she talks with him, makes him laugh and giggle, loves on him continuously. she comforts him, teaches him. she lets him be a kid. Those sound like such simple things, but, in the long run, I believe they end up being the most crucial to raising a child who is engaged and feels connected with the world around him.”
For Espinosa, who grew up the middle child of five children, and Mendoza, who’s one of seven children in her family, sharing in the joy of raising children is a no-brainer. And though the couple worried initially whether their respective families would embrace Joakuin, it quickly became apparent that the smiling cherub of a little boy could melt the heart of any family member.
“Though I came out to my mother years ago, no matter how comfortable you are, there’s always something that comes up, and I worried that my parents would have a problem accepting Joakuin,” Espinosa says. “and if there was any doubt in anybody’s mind about my sexuality, that was definitely going to be brought to the forefront when they met the child that Elvia and I had just adopted. But my family was great. I was so pleasantly surprised at how they accepted Joakuin. My parents are completely in love with him.”
All Sorts Of Crazy Dreams
Raising a toddler can certainly be a handful, but Espinosa and Mendoza have developed a useful, if not harried, schedule that allows them to spend as much time together and with their son as possible. still, finding time for their own individual hobbies and interests is challenging.
Espinosa, who used to be an avid runner (she and Mendoza ran the Chicago Marathon together years ago), doesn’t get to strap on her running shoes quite as often anymore. But she does wake extra early three times a week for a 5:30 a.m. boot camp on Town lake, and occasionally sneaks in a run on the weekends.
Another way in which Espinosa and Mendoza stay sane in the light of such a stress-inducing lifestyle is travel. Crediting herself with an overwhelming curiosity and an innate sense of wanderlust, Espinosa has covered the globe, backpacking across Asia for three months with Mendoza, visiting Mexico often, traveling to Italy to visit her sister, and taking trips to other alluring locales like Spain and Greece. In fact, the couple travels at least three times a year, with two of those excursions being international journeys. This year, they plan to head to Costa Rica; Tulum, Mexico; and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
Of course, their travels will have to be worked around Espinosa’s career schedule, Mendoza’s studies and the additional construction taking place on their historic 1925 home in east Austin . Add to that Mendoza’s year-long field research that will take her to New Orleans later this summer, and it’s clear that the couple has even more hurdles to overcome in maintaining their family unit. But, as with everything else in their lives, such struggles will likely make them stronger and bring them closer together.
As for their distant future, Espinosa looses a small giggle as she divulges the couple’s dream of one day opening a nonprofit café.
“I love endocrinology, but I would also love the chance to do something else in my lifetime,” she says. “We’ve got all sorts of crazy dreams!”
It is those types of crazy dreams, combined with her positivity, confidence and smarts, that Mendoza says make Espinosa such a joy to be with.
“There are many characteristics Valerie has that make her a wonderful partner and friend,” Mendoza says. “For one, she has a great sense of humor. That is a must, I think, for any relationship. There is so much in our lives that can easily consume us as we work against time, but a funny perspective or a hilarious comment, combined with a wholehearted laugh, grounds you. Valerie does that.
“She helps me balance myself with her inspiring optimism and unassuming thoughts about people. She always always always manages to see the best in people. I find this incredible and am constantly somewhat dazed by it. This isn’t to say she sugar-coats things or is blind to what, perhaps, could be better. She sees those things too, but somehow it is the good that stays with her. She carries that with her. That is one of the reasons I love her and care for her so much. I see how people respond to her and how she responds to them, and I think people not only see this genuine goodness and kindness in her, they also feel it. I did when I first met her and I still do.”