By Michael Haederle

Latinas Who Lead

Dr. Lana Melendres-Groves Brings Her "A" Game to Caring for New Mexico's Sickest Patients

Lana Melendres-Groves, MD, stands just 5 feet 11/2 inches tall, and has seldom - if ever - been described as physically imposing. But she has never let her stature hold her back.

When she was growing up, her father, Art Melendres, a prominent Albuquerque attorney and longtime UNM Regent, counseled confidence. "The best things come in small packages," he told her. "They will never see you coming because they will always underestimate you."

Melendres-Groves took his advice to heart and learned the value of tenacity.

At UNM, she was a Regents' Scholar and a record-setting center midfielder for the women's soccer team. After medical school and residency at UNM, she did advanced postdoctoral training at Stanford University in pulmonary vascular disease.

Now an associate professor in UNM's Department of Internal Medicine, Melendres-Groves helped launch the pulmonary hypertension program, for which she now serves as medical director. And, she recently was appointed the department's vice chair for diversity, equity and inclusion, where she is responsible for recruiting and retaining faculty, as well as responding to the needs of students and residents.

The Albuquerque native credits her parents with nurturing in her and her three siblings a deep appreciation for people from varied backgrounds.

"It was part of my upbringing to see how different and diverse we are here and to cherish that and hold it up for others to see," she says. "My dad and mom both realized the importance of our melting pot, being able to empathize and understand those around you."

Diversity plays a central role in her research. Pulmonary hypertension is a relatively rare progressive disease, which disproportionately affects middle-aged women, and can eventually lead to right heart failure.

"Right now, we have 14 different medications that are approved for treatment along three different pathways," Melendres-Groves says. "The goal is to halt or slow the progression."

Although she could have taken her expertise elsewhere, she returned home to practice in part because so many of her patients are Hispanic - a group that has been little studied by other pulmonary hypertension researchers. She sees patients from throughout New Mexico and surrounding states.

"My hope is by remaining in New Mexico and being able to highlight differences, maybe we can find therapies that are more beneficial to them, versus somebody who's Anglo," she says.

Melendres-Groves forged her determined spirit playing soccer, which she took up because she wanted to emulate her two older brothers. Ever since her stellar Division I career at UNM, she has stayed active in the sport as a coach - and she even married one, Joshua Groves, owner of the New Mexico Soccer Academy (their four children play as well).

But as an Hispanic woman, Melendres-Groves has also had to contend with some unique professional challenges.

"When I walk into a room, within my specialty it is 99 percent men, and the majority of those are white men," she says. "I have no problem with that. But definitely you recognize that you are the only one in the room. There are those who are willing to appreciate that and listen to you, and there are those who say, 'You're just a woman.'"

In the course of her career, she says, "there have been many times when I questioned why I was putting myself through things I thought didn't have to happen any more in this day and age, but I did it because there's others coming behind me."

Ultimately, Melendres-Groves says, it's about using her competitive spirit to provide the best care possible to her patients.

"For the disease that I treat, I'm not OK with them just staying the same, which would be a tie, and they should not die, which should be a loss," she says. "I want them to feel better. I will always work my hardest to the last minute, because you never know what will happen until the last whistle blows."

Categories: Community Engagement, Health, School of Medicine, Top Stories