It could be argued that the University of New Mexico women’s soccer team was instrumental in the development of the UNM Health Science Center’s Pulmonary Hypertensive Clinic and Program.
One of the doctors instrumental in the setup of the clinic was Dr. Lana Melendres-Groves, an assistant professor in the department of internal medicine at UNM HSC. The Valley High School and University of New Mexico alumnus and soccer player went to Stanford to get her post-doctorate degree in pulmonary vascular disease with the idea of coming back to Albuquerque to set up a program for patients suffering from pulmonary hypertension in 2011-2012.
“What struck me was that there were 30- to 40-year-old women – healthy women who were just starting families, like me – that were being diagnosed with this incurable disease,” she says during a recent phone interview. “At the time, there wasn’t a specific place for these people to go in the state. I was seeing a need that wasn’t being met, and that’s what drove me to get involved.”
“Drive” is critical to a doctor’s success, and Melendres-Groves said her pursuit of a medical career was due in large part to the finding a new direction for her internal motivation to replace the one she had when she was a student at UNM from 1996-2000 and starred for the Lobos.
“To be honest, the adrenaline rush from working in such an intensive career really mirrors playing soccer,” said the doctor who was known as Lana Melendres during her athletic career at UNM. “You have to work as a team, you have to rely on everyone around you and you have to make decisions at a moment’s notice.”
Thankfully for the many patients at the HSC’s Pulmonary Hypertensive Clinic, Melendres enjoyed a tremendously satisfying soccer career.
The former Lobo midfielder is still among the top 10 in seven different categories in the program’s record book.
She says her proudest memory from her playing days came during her freshman year, at a time in which she hadn’t contributed for the first few games of the season.
“The first game I ever got to play was a game against BYU my freshman season,” Melendres-Groves says. “I don’t know if the coach at the time (John DeWitt) thought I was going to do anything remarkable, but I hadn’t played up to that point.
“I sat on the bench for the first 80 minutes of that game and we were losing by, like, three goals. The coach told me to warm up, and I wondered why he would put me in for those last 10 minutes.
“But then I told myself that I had 10 minutes to give it everything I had. I didn’t score or anything, but the coach liked the way I played and I won a starting job. I started every game of my career after that.”
As much as she gave the Lobo women’s soccer team, the Lobo women’s soccer team gave back.
“It was the utmost positive thing in my life,” Melendres-Groves says. “Everything I encountered shaped who I am. I’d never trade it for anything in my life. It’s given me the majority of my friends. It teaches you to deal with different personalities. It teaches you when to step up and when to rely on your teammates.”
Two of her best friends from her class, Heidi Greco-Feitz and Dawn Trevino, remain close with her to this day.
Melendres-Groves also learned how to manage her time, which allowed her to become a standout on the field and in the classroom.
“I think student-athletes sometimes get a bad rap, whether it’s a football player, a volleyball player or a soccer player,” she says. “There’s this assumption that student-athletes can’t be both good students and good players. But there are people like Michelle Longmire (another former Lobo women’s soccer player-turned M.D.) that shows you can.
“Being a student is a full-time job, and then you add on the athlete part of it, which is like a part-time job or more. If you can do both, you should be able to succeed in life because you learn how to manage your time.”
Which is why Dr. Melendres-Groves is able to make time for her family. She and her husband Josh Groves are the parents of three boys ages 6, 5, and 2 and an 11-week-old girl.
“It’s pretty much mayhem all the time around our house,” Melendres-Groves says with a laugh.
Josh is the New Mexico Youth Soccer director and is currently running a soccer academy for 5- to 7-year-olds. Lana serves an instructor for the 20 or so kids three days a week. She also competes at the highest competitive women’s league in Albuquerque, the Albuquerque Indoor Soccer League, and plays indoor on a weekly basis.
“I still love to compete, and the coaching aspect is something that makes me happy to do,” Melendres-Groves says. “With my kids growing up and starting to play soccer, now I can enjoy soccer through them.”
The same can be said for her affiliation with the current UNM soccer teams. She attends as many soccer games – both men’s and women’s – as she can. She considers herself a good friend of Lobo coaches Kit and Jorge Vela, both of whom she says have worked diligently to reach out to alumni and make them feel part of the Lobo women’s soccer family.
“I think that’s really important for both alumni and the current players,” she says. “For the alumni, it gives us a chance to show our support and give back to something that was an important part of our lives. And the players understand that we’re there for them. If a player is thinking about going into med school, for example, she knows she can come to me.”
To that end, Melendres-Groves and Greco-Feitz made dinner for the team last year during their fall camp two-a-days. Melendres-Groves says it’s important to make a connection between former and current players and fits into the Velas’ concept of growing a women’s soccer family.
“Kit and Jorge have done a wonderful job of involving the alumni in creating a family atmosphere with the team,” she says.
“Family” is a big reason Melendres-Groves says she made the decision to live in Albuquerque after completing med school.
“This is home,” she says. “Everything about UNM, about New Mexico, makes me think of family. The people here are so kind that I knew I wanted to be here.
“I never walk away from my family.”