BY ERIN SHERIDAN
As the novel coronavirus swept into the Rio Grande Valley, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s latest class of medical students led a push to postpone their traditional white coat ceremony — the first time many of these students take an oath to become a doctor —until they could safely be together.
That could be months, or even a year or two from now, some of them speculated. But both students and faculty see the changes necessary to adapt to this new reality as a driving force to work together, to work harder, and to focus on addressing the Valley’s unique medical needs in a time of crisis.
It’s no secret that the Rio Grande Valley has among the highest rates of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and obesity in the country. At a Zoom orientation for the medical school’s class of 2024 on Wednesday morning, Dr. John H. Krouse, dean of UTRGV’s school of medicine called attention to the need for doctors in the area.
“Realize you are going to have an amazing opportunity to learn how to take care of patients in an environment that traditionally has been resource-constrained, in an environment where patients have not had outstanding access to care. We have among the highest poverty rates in South Texas in the country. We have among the poorest ratio of primary care physicians to patient in the country,” he said.
Later, Krouse cited the high rates of chronic illness, including diabetes and obesity in the RGV’s communities — which according to the dean stand at some of the highest rates in the world. In the middle of a pandemic, this translates to a focus on empathy and learning to treat the entirety of a patient for overall well-being.
“You’re going to very much be learning how to deal with the emotional issues that many patients are dealing with — with the anxiety, with the discomfort they have with not knowing exactly what the future holds for them. It’s a time in which I think you’ll be spending as much time listening as you will be diagnosing,” said Krouse.
The university is adapting, developing tools for online learning and simulated experiences, a new challenge for all of the 155 medical schools across the United States. The stressors that come along with unexpected change are daunting, but students of the Class of 2024 expressed gratitude to be able to learn from and serve their community.
“A lot of things added up to me wanting to be a doctor,” said Cecilia Salinas Domene, a Brownsville native who’s eyeing a career in nutrition. Domene was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at around 10 years old. The pediatric rheumatologist local physicians referred her to Victoria, forcing the family to drive hours for appointments.
“As a kid, I realized if there were a pediatric rheumatologist in the Valley it would be so much easier. I wouldn’t have to miss school and my parents wouldn’t have to miss work,” she recalled.
Domene left the Valley to complete her undergraduate degree at UT Austin, eventually returning to address the shortage of doctors at home. “I always felt like I had a calling back here. I felt like it wasn’t fair to leave the Valley knowing there was a problem I could fix,” she said.
Vanessa Lopez, like Domene, left the Valley for undergrad. Lopez studied at Harvard and chose to return to apply her experiences to better serve the RGV. In high school, she volunteered at the Brownsville Kiddie Clinic and was inspired by the solid relationships staff developed with patients over the course of generations. A good student, she recalled high school teachers worrying that she would leave the Valley and never come back — a phenomenon often referred to as a “brain drain,” in which highly educated students flock to areas with more resources to pursue careers.
“It was always in the back of my mind, even when I was doing really cool things in Boston. I had this idea that maybe, I could come back and try to make my family proud, do something where I could bring my experiences and the skills that I’ve learned back here and make it a better place,” she said.
“It wasn’t until the UTRGV School of Medicine became what it is and came to fruition. I know it has been decades in the making. This school has finally given me the opportunity to do that — to combine my experiences and to make some sort of a difference here.”
Another Brownsville native, Ed Alvarado, relocated to Edinburg (where the medical school campus is located) after spending a couple of years interning at a hospital in San Antonio, where he assisted children with learning disabilities. Growing up, Alvarado said he didn’t relate to the sentiment that leaving the Valley was the only option to succeed.
The university’s success in establishing the medical school opened up a world of opportunity that allowed him to pursue his goals at home. “That was never my mentality. I was always thinking about how we could get better, to provide more opportunities for the people here, starting with improving their health,” he said.
“With better health, people have access to better jobs, education, more opportunities. With a high occurrence of diabetes here in the Valley, the more we can improve health, the stronger the community will be.”
Alvarado encouraged any students wanting to pursue medicine to keep trying. The path is difficult but rewarding. “Don’t get discouraged. It is very, very competitive. But, if you believe that this is what you want to do, go ahead and go for it.”