This Austinite Voted Dell Med into Existence—Now She’s One of the School’s First Graduates

Eight years ago, Travis County residents had a decision to make: did they want a medical school badly enough they were willing to pay higher property taxes to fund it? Brooke Wagen did. An East Austin resident since 2007, Wagen was an ardent supporter of Central Health Proposition 1—the 2012 tax increase that, if approved, would generate the final chunk of revenue needed to give the city an improved health care system based around a teaching hospital. “Please vote for Prop 1,” she asked family, friends, neighbors, and anyone else who would listen. “We need a medical school here. And I want to go there.” 

That last part was more of a daydream. Wagen hadn’t been in a classroom in nearly two decades, and the youngest of her three children, her daughter, Elaia, was barely two years old. “It was just one of those things you say,” Wagen says when we meet for coffee in February. “Kind of like, ‘I want to be in the Super Bowl.’”  

But sometimes we speak things into existence. On Nov. 6, 2012, in a historic move, 54 percent of Austin residents agreed with Wagen, voting to raise their own taxes for a medical school. This summer, Dell Med will graduate its inaugural class and Wagen, 43, will be one of 49 new Longhorn MDs. 

Wagen grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, before heading off at 18 to Wofford College, a tiny liberal arts school in South Carolina. While double majoring in biology and Spanish, she realized she wasn’t so sure about pursuing medicine. “As we go through school,” she says, “we keep becoming the people that we’re going to be.” Undergrad made Wagen want to know herself better, and that felt like a challenge within the confines of academia. She was exhausted by grades, and tired of performing for other people. Also, she was in love. The summer before her senior year, Wagen married her high school sweetheart, Taylor.  

By 21 and 19, respectively, Brooke and Taylor had their first son, Corin. A year later, they moved to Austin for Taylor’s job at a tech startup. They had a second son, Ari, in 2002. When she found Corin reading Civil War history books at the age of four, she decided to home-school her kids.  

That began the next 20 years of what she calls her “weird path of doing very alternative things.” She taught herself how to build houses and bought houses to flip. She built a shipping container pool. When she moved to East Austin, she put her Spanish to use as an advocate for her non-English speaking neighbors, placing and translating calls to hospitals and insurance companies on their behalf, and volunteered as a medical interpreter in an official capacity on mission trips to Guatemala and Mexico. In 2011, she and Taylor followed through on a promise they made to each other on one of their first dates and adopted a child, taking the boys on a week-long trip to Ethiopia to pick up their new sister Elaia.  

Throughout it all, though, Wagen says she kept her childhood dream of becoming a physician. After a moment of clarity on a 2014 trip with her mother and Elaia to Connecticut, she called Taylor and told him she was thinking about applying to Dell Med. “Well, yeah,” he responded.  

Wagen used to think it was her attention to detail that would make her a great doctor. Now she thinks about medicine differently. “I guess you check some boxes,” she says, “but really you’re dealing with people, and people are infinitely interesting. The challenges that they face are infinitely variable, and the privilege of being allowed into someone’s world as a physician is incredible. There isn’t a box to check on that.”  

It is a perspective she wouldn’t have come to without years of real-world experience. And it is one that aligns with Dell Med, whose overarching mission since its conception has been about rethinking and transforming health care to be more holistic, with a unique focus on its surrounding community.  

Wagen still remembers the gigantic syllabi and textbooks friends in other medical schools would lug around, trying to commit all of it to memory. In her four years at Dell Med, Wagen and her classmates have never been handed a textbook. Instead, she says, they are sent off to do their own research on the topics they are learning, devouring journals and news articles, and gathering real-world experience. They delve into the human side before exploring how economic realities might influence whatever condition it is they are studying, then explore sociological circumstances, and so on.  

On the day we meet, Wagen comes straight from the Travis County Courthouse. She has spent a lot of time there lately, in addition to time at crisis respite centers and the Travis County and Williamson County jails. Wagen is taking the month to learn everything she can about integral care—the mental health component to community care—to gain a big picture idea of the circumstances her future patients might be coming from, or where she can send them if they need help. Her work can be deflating, but she remains optimistic. “Everything I’ve learned about the system just goes into the hopper of things I understand,” she says. “Into my toolbox.”  

On March 20, “Match Day,” Wagen matched to the only place she applied: the Internal Medicine residency at Dell Med. She will spend the next three years working in the hospital and at the VA as an internist under the supervision of the internal medicine faculty, and hopes to use the research component of her residency to work on innovating at-home care for veterans served at the VA. And when she’s finished? “I’d love to walk out my door and practice medicine in East Austin,” she says. For the last two years, Wagen’s mentor has been Travis County’s Medical Society’s 2019 Physician of the Year Guadalupe Zamora, whose practice is five blocks from Wagen’s house. Her dream is to have her own practice like Zamora.  

She wants to co-manage health with patients, instead of prescribing them what she thinks they need without asking plenty of questions. She wants patients to have her cell phone number, and to feel comfortable calling her to ask if they need to go to the emergency room. She vows to keep going to her usual H-E-B, even if her patients stop her in the aisles to ask questions. “I think it’s OK for my life to bleed all together,” she says. “I’m not saying I want to work all the time. But I’m going to be a human who is a doctor. Not a doctor for a group of people I would never see in any other context.”  

Above all, Wagen just wants to be a great physician. She doesn’t want her patients to think of her as being smart in a vacuum—she wants them to think she can do a good job taking care of them. “People need a partner in their doctor,” Wagen says. “One of my main jobs is to say, ‘You can be stressed, and we’re going to work on this together.’”  

Photograph by Summer Miles



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