COMMENTARY: Historic moment for med school

Last Saturday the Rio Grande Valley witnessed a truly historic moment, a moment that for many of us has been a longtime dream. Thirty-nine students graduated in the inaugural graduation ceremony from The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine! They forever will be honored as the first doctors from a medical school in South Texas. They also take with them the realization that the transformation of the Valley has only just begun. The creation of UTRGV and the School of Medicine was historic. It took decades to get a medical school that could provide the health care and educational benefits the Valley so desperately needed and deserved.

Having a medical school in the RGV has been beneficial for many reasons. Our community has increased the number of residency slots from 35 in 2010 to more than 200, meaning more doctors are not just training here, but likely staying to serve our community. The School of Medicine also is laying the foundation to become an emerging research university. And, without knowing it at the time of its creation, having a medical school in our region has helped us to rapidly respond to the healthcare needs due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The UTRGV School of Medicine was able to quickly begin operating four COVID-19 testing locations. What’s more, the UT Health RGV Clinical Lab, also known as the UTRGV Center for Vector-Borne Disease, is playing a key role in the Valley’s response to the pandemic. The lab — which normally focuses on viruses like Zika — now is helping with COVID-19 testing. Also, the UTRGV Psychology Clinic has been providing a confidential phone service called a “warmline” to help community members with a free counseling telephone service for individuals experiencing emotional and mental distress related to the ongoing coronavirus challenges.

These are just some of the services and the benefits our community is reaping from the 200 medical school students, the faculty and researchers from the School of Medicine.

Just a few weeks ago, the 39 graduating students were matched to their teaching hospitals and I am pleased to report that seven of our medical school students matched with a hospital in the RGV. This means they will be staying in our region to complete their medical training and treat those in need in our community.

We expect this number to increase as more Valley students are admitted to the School of Medicine. More than 50 percent of the students enrolled last year were from the Valley, and another 25 of the incoming 55 students are from here as well.

Being the lead author of Senate Bill 24, the legislation that created UTRGV and the School of Medicine, has been the highlight of my legislative career. However, transforming the dream of a medical school into a reality required a team. It would not be possible without the vision and tireless commitment of our Valley legislative delegation, our local public officials and our business and community leaders. It also wouldn’t be possible without the leadership, dedication and tireless work of Dr. Guy Bailey, founding president of UTRGV, Dr. John Krouse, dean of the School of Medicine, and the faculty and staff who are part of the medical school.

When the UTRGV School of Medicine opened its doors in fall 2016 with its first class ever, there was incredible excitement and celebration as we began to finally see decades of visions come to fruition. But we also knew one thing — the real transformation would begin once we started graduating students as physicians. And that is exactly what happened last Saturday for the first time in the Rio Grande Valley. This is a proud moment and huge achievement for South Texas, and I know it is just the first of many more accomplishments to come.

Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa represents Texas State Senate District 20, which extends from Hidalgo County to Nueces County. He writes for The Monitor’s Board of Contributors.