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He charted improbable life journeys, and then found out that his surgeon had followed such a path

Dr. Genaro Villa (above) and patient Howard London bonded over London's studies of people's life journeys.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

At first, they were just doctor and patient.

And that post-operative bedside conversation unfolded routinely recently, just like so many others. A simple hospital room checkup. Part of the morning rounds.

"Can you feel that?'' the doctor asked a few weeks ago, rubbing his finger down his patient’s leg.

But then the patient, Howard London, asked the doctor, Genaro Villa, now a neurosurgical resident at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, questions he did not expect.

Questions no patient had asked him before.

"So I walk into his room,'' Dr. Villa recalled. "And Howard is a fascinating guy. And he immediately started asking me lots of questions. ‘Tell me about yourself.’ And I don’t shy away from telling folks my story.


"So, without hesitation, I said, ‘Well, I went to community college and transferred to UCLA. And I did my work there and then came out here.’ And, in that moment, he said, ‘I have a background in that. Are you a first-generation student?’

"And I said, ‘Yes.’ And then, basically, I found out that I was the physical embodiment of his research.''

Howard London pioneered a study about those who are first in their families to attend college. He recently had spinal surgery at MGH, where, he met Dr. Genaro Villa.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

And, just like that, two lives — two academic paths — converged. And the professional distance that normally separates physician and patient began to fall away.

Turns out Howard London, 73, has made his professional life’s work, in part, charting improbable life journeys like that of 36-year-old Genaro Villa.

"You’ve got to remember that [I was] under the influence of a heavy-duty drug,'' London recalled from across his sun-dappled kitchen table in East Bridgewater. "But there was something about the quality of his voice and the concern in his voice that made me connect to him in a way that I did not connect with other doctors.''

London is former dean and provost at Bridgewater State University. He’s retired now, but he taught sociology for 17 years. His specialty was the study of higher education and its impact on those who — just one generation ago — scarcely could have imagined themselves attending lectures in big college auditoriums.


In other words, students just like Genaro Villa.

"One of the things I learned along the way was that a lot of these students were very unsure of themselves academically,'' London said. "Yet, they’re putting themselves out there by majoring in some kind of liberal arts subject.

"Now, that’s a courageous thing for them to do. Because what they are — in essence — telling family members and friends is: ‘I’m headed for a life that’s going to be very different from yours and what you may have expected of me because I’m headed for a white-collar job.’ And nobody in the family may have one.''

Genaro Villa has a story like that. In fact, he’s lived it.

His father — and namesake — raised his family in Camarillo, Calif., a small city in Ventura County, toiling as a farmworker — long hours under a hot sun, starting when he was just 15 years old.

"My dad took me with him during the summers,'' Villa said. "I did work once in the fields as part of a school project. It is incredibly hard work. I won the lottery with my parents. They’re fantastic people. My mom was born in Mexico. And they were both big proponents of education.''

Villa’s education began at a community college in California from which he transferred to the University of California Los Angeles.


And it was that community college experience that sealed the connection between the two men.

"Every single thing that I have written, every talk that I have given — everything — had to do with kids,'' London said. "Either kids who otherwise would not have gone to college or the institutions that serve them, like community colleges for example.''

So when his new doctor — the man he came to see after overexercise at his gym had injured his back — told Howard London his life’s story, he became less of a patient. And more of a sociologist.

"It’s not ordinarily a connection that you make with your physician,'' London said. "You tend not to get that personal. And sometimes for good reason. You want to keep a social distance and not get too emotionally involved with your patient because things could go wrong.''

But this was different.

"In this case, whatever involvement we had with each other was, to me, very helpful. I enjoyed that day. There weren’t that many days that I enjoyed. It was tough being in the hospital. But I enjoyed that day. I enjoyed talking with him. It was great making that connection. And so when that wall between patient and doctor came down for me it had a healing quality

"It also had this: It was just simply fun. I just enjoyed the conversation. Nice guy.''


That’s precisely how Genaro Villa felt about it.

He told London about his medical journey, a journey that was guided by key mentors who showed him the way. By family members who encouraged him when times grew tough. By self-confidence that grew over time.

"Yes. I did really well,'' he said. "On a lot of effort. You have to do that in neurosurgery. I felt quite comfortable. It was challenging. But I enjoyed it.''

And his community college work, he told London, made all the difference.

"They were smaller classes so you had lots of access to the professor,'' Villa said. "And because my family didn’t go to college, that was important to help me understand what it took to do well and understand the material. I had access to these professors for office hours. In retrospect, I was one of the few people who ever went.''

It propelled him to Boston and to Howard London’s bedside. A connection both men want to endure.

"Folks like Howard are proponents of students like me,'' Villa said. "I was moved that he had dedicated his life and his research to studying folks and figuring out ways to help them succeed and open the doors to provide opportunities.

"He has a deep understanding of the challenges that first-generation, or under-represented students face, including community college transfers. So it hit me pretty hard. Because that is a very personal part of my journey. It’s not common, I think, for most folks to go into neurosurgery to start at the community college level and then work their way up.''


But that’s the path that Genaro Villa followed. It’s an educational journey that led him to Howard London, who has made it the centerpiece of his research.

When both men discovered their common connection, medical issues faded — if momentarily.

"I think to some degree it is the American dream,'' Villa said. "My folks did not have lots of opportunity. But they came here and worked extremely hard. They were wonderful people who contributed and wanted the best for their children and did everything they could to provide those opportunities.

"I love what I do. This is a dream job. Neurosurgery is challenging, but the work is fascinating.

"And you see something new every day.''

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.