HARLINGEN — It started with a piece of legislation years ago.
Now the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine has just graduated its inaugural class of 39 physicians.
“It’s very exciting,” said Dr. John Krouse, dean of the School of Medicine.
“We have been planning for this date for quite some time,” Krouse said. “We are happy to see our students graduate and go on to their residencies.”
More directly, on Saturday he declared, “Class of 2020 I have the privilege to welcome you as colleagues to the medical profession.”
The event was historic in more ways than one. Not only is this the first graduating class, but the new physicians had to celebrate their achievements in a virtual ceremony that was streamed online.
“Of course it’s disappointing,” Krouse said. “The Valley has been planning for this graduation for decades. The school had been considered in the 1940s. We had hoped to invite the entire community to a large celebration this month. And the virus got in the way.”
He emphasized, however, that this change in circumstances would not dampen the enthusiasm of the moment. Graduating medical students tuned in from environs far and wide to celebrate their milestones.
“I will be watching the virtual ceremony with my significant other in New Orleans while we pack up for the big move to Houston!” said Shane Wing, a Harlingen resident.
Wing, 28, is a 2010 graduate of Harlingen High School South who earned a master’s degree in public health and tropical medicine at Tulane University in the Crescent City before attending medical school. She plans to do her residency in oncology in Houston.
She, like many students, was drawn to UTRGV’s School of Medicine by its focus on community.
“I think there’s a really big emphasis on border health and also there’s this combination of cultures where we’re at on the border,” Wing said. “You get the flavor of the Rio Grande at the actual school so I think that was pretty unique.”
Wing began her formal education by doing undergraduate work in Italian studies at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. She also studied in Florence, Italy. Her initial academic studies catalyzed an interest in social injustices, thus leading her to pursue medicine at UTRGV.
“Though my pre-medical track was atypical, each experience, from studying gender roles in the Italian opera to viewing protozoa under the microscope, have molded me into the humanities-focused physician-in-training I am today,” she said.
The UTRGV School of Medicine’s focus on community care also attracted Joy Alvarado, 33, of Seguin.
“Our school really emphasized education about underserved populations, specifically people living in the colonias in the Rio Grande Valley,” she said.
Colonias, she explained, are “underserved populations,” many with no running water or electricity. The unpaved roads make it difficult for children to attend school.
“We’ve been out in the field helping the community and being in touch and engaged with the community since the first week of our medical school education,” she said.
Alvarado previously earned a master’s in public health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health before beginning her medical studies on a military scholarship. Upon graduation from UTRGV, she’ll be commissioned as a U.S. Army captain. She’ll do her family medicine residency at the Fort Hood Charles R. Darnall Army Medical Center.
She’s enjoyed the challenge of helping create a new medical school.
“I feel very proud,” she said. “It’s been lots of ups and downs for the past four years. We did a lot of testing of new education strategies. We got a lot of feed back, we gave a lot of feedback.”
Krouse quickly acknowledged the work by the charter class.
“This is really historic,” he said. “You are truly trailblazers. You helped us put it together and you helped us improve it.”
Krouse emphasized several important points to the new doctors.
“As a physician they need to maintain the fact that their patients’ interests are the most important thing they can look out for every day,” he said. “I think they need to learn to be humble.”
He also extolled the gravity of the doctor/patient relationship. Patients are entrusting their lives to their doctors. Indeed, physicians are being brought into patients’ lives in a very intimate way, he said.
“They need to practice medicine without regard to the position or the status or the wealth of that patient,” he said. “The care they give must be fair and it must be equitable.”
Fair and impartial health care is what Ramiro Tovar hopes to give patients after completing his family medicine residency at Doctor’s Hospital at Renaissance in Edinburg. The Brownsville native is excited about graduation from the much-anticipated local medical school, right where he plans to practice.
“If you move a single zip code you start to deal with a whole bunch of different patient populations and social problems,” he said. “I figured it would be best to get my training with patients I’ll be seeing for the rest of my life.”
Krouse spoke of COVID-19 and its impact on society and on the trajectory of many aspiring physicians.
“I really do think it will help to shape their careers,” he said earlier.
“I think this tragic event that’s occurred in this country is going to give our graduates a different perspective on what it’s going to be like to be a physician,” he said. “One of the things it has taught us is that we really need to be close to each other. We need to listen to each other, we need to respect each other, we need to be compassionate and empathic.”
Some, he said, may be more inclined to pursue careers in community health, which after all is what the UTRGV School of Medicine is all about.