The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley recently graduated its first class of students from the School of Medicine. Those graduates entered the program when it opened in 2016 and many plan to stay in the Rio Grande Valley for residencies or will return to practice. Graduates spoke of their community ties and a desire to address the needs of underserved border residents who face unique social and cultural challenges requiring physicians to work collaboratively with patients.

Training doctors locally is essential in addressing the needs of underserved South Texas communities and has been the driving force behind a decades-long push to bring a medical school to the RGV, explained Dr. Leonel Vela, the School of Medicine’s Senior Associate Dean for Educational and Academic Affairs.

“If we look at the number of physicians per 100,000 population nationally, we have roughly half of that ratio. Compared to the State of Texas, we have about a third of that ratio. Texas already ranks in the lower 10 out of the 50 states in terms of the number of doctors per 100,000 population. It gives you a perspective of the significant need there is here,” he said.

UTRGV’s med school was generations in the making and a major impetus of that push was to address the significant shortage of doctors locally. Vela came in as the founding dean at the Harlingen Regional Academic Center in 2000. Students from the UT Health Science Center in San Antonio would do clinical rotations until legislation was passed calling for the establishment of the medical school under UTRGV.

The program’s pre-development brought expanded residency programs to students including internal medicine, psychiatry, family medicine, general surgery, obstetrics and gynecology, and even fellowships in cardiology, gastroenterology, hospice, and sports medicine. “Nationally, what we see is that physicians are almost three times as likely to stay in the area where they go to medical school and train. When you develop that locally, it becomes a nexus for attracting more physicians, more research. We’ve seen interest in medicine expand locally. Now, for students in our public schools, it’s a dream they can achieve. For my generation, the only option was to leave the Valley,” said Vela.

As for the students, graduates spoke enthusiastically about the benefits their training brings to South Texas. Ramiro Tovar, 26, grew up in the Valley and is pursuing family medicine because it allows him to get to know his patients on a personal level, enabling treatment that’s responsive, effective, and sensitive to cultural practices and values. His mother wanted to be a doctor growing up and didn’t get the chance, though interest in medicine was solidified only when an aunt he was close with had a burst aneurysm.

“They told her the prognosis was terrible, but neurosurgeons stepped up with a surgery that could save her. She got another 16 years of life. She got to see her daughter married, her son grow up. As a physician you can walk in one moment and change an entire person’s life,” he said.

Another graduate, Daniella Concha, 27, will leave the area to complete a residency in NYC focused on internal medicine. After, she hopes to do a fellowship in cardiology. She echoed Tovar’s respect for RGV communities and in particular her home town of Donna. “There are so many hardworking people I encounter here who face so many limitations regarding access to healthcare and understanding their conditions. I’ve seen my own family members struggle to understand what’s going on with them because of the language barrier,” she shared.

“While there are many Spanish-speaking physicians here, many do not speak Spanish. I want to help these people understand what’s going on with their bodies, how it’s happening, what the consequences of not following up with your doctor are.”

Concha emphasized the power of community ties and cultural insight in making her a responsive physician. “I grew up in this culture. My mom once cracked an egg on my head and said, ‘This is going to cure your stomach ache.’ A lot of the patients here practice folk medicine. Being able to incorporate both the patients’ beliefs and their culture with management that’s within the literature of what evidence-based medicine is — that is going to help a lot of people here and I want to be a part of that.”

Other students opted to stay in the Valley not only to address healthcare access, but also to remain close to family. Joseph Garza, 26, is graduating into a residency at DHR Health in Edinburg and has a young daughter with his fiancé, which only strengthened his resolve to practice locally. “Working in medicine, going through school, seeing hospitals — I saw the health disparities. There are complicated patients here with hypertension and diabetes but not a lot of resources for a large community. I understand the culture here. I speak Spanish. Patients want a doctor that understands them and I feel like I’m able to do that for my patients when I start seeing them in July,” said Garza.

Ye Ji Choi, a graduate of University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine, stands outside her home Tuesday in Mission, Texas. Choi plans to do her residency at DHR Health in Edinburg while training in obstetrics and gynecology. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Graduate Ye Ji Choi, 27, grew up in Mission and will be joining Garza at DHR Health while training in obstetrics and gynecology. She said her four years at UTRGV were challenging and exciting as the program represented uncharted territory. “You gain a lot of experience and become aware of and exposed to the culture locally. You can hone in on and adapt to the needs of the community. Things like the language itself, body language, cultural implications. Being able to provide these services is crucial” said Choi.

Some members of the graduating class completed their undergraduate degrees through UTRGV’s BMED Scholar Program. The program’s director, Dr. Hugo Rodriguez, noted that Tovar was also a member of the first BMED graduating class in 2016, likely influencing his decision to stay. “We did a lot of activities outside of the classroom — community service, clinical experience, and professional development,” said Rodriguez.

His philosophy has been to motivate students to push through their work, to be honest with themselves, and to have the will to learn from mistakes while embracing the journey as something joyful. “You chose a pathway and you need to be reading every day of your life. The field of medicine is constantly evolving. We need to plant that seed in the students from day one and nurture that seed,” he said.

Students are encouraged by faculty to engage with the needs of the Valley. That might mean coming back to practice and it might not, but even those graduates who have chosen residencies cited a desire to return to practice. Veronica Trevino is one of them. She recalled realizing she wanted to be a pediatrician at three years old when she asked her parents about the work of her own doctor. “Being born and raised in the Valley, this is a huge, huge deal for me,” she said.

Trevino is from McAllen and is leaving to the closest place she possibly can while still practicing pediatrics — Driscoll Children’s Hospital in Corpus Christi. “When babies get really sick, when kids get really sick, we send them to Driscoll. It has exceeded the capacity at which we can take care of them here. They have satellite clinics all over the Valley and we get to rotate at all of them,” she added.

Trevino’s education in medicine exposed her to the Valley’s underserved colonias and the lack of basic infrastructure like running water and unpaved roads, which she referenced as an integral driver of her desire to practice locally. Her appreciation for medicine truly began at 11, however, when her dad suffered a heart attack and had open heart surgery. She said of the experience, “As my dad’s daughter, that surgeon didn’t do anything to me directly, but he completely changed my life because he gave me my dad back.”

She thanked the community for welcoming the graduates with open arms and giving them the respect they needed to learn and thrive. “It has been a really meaningful experience,” said Trevino.

Shuemara Ondoy, a graduate of University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine, stands outside Valley Baptist Medical Center Tuesday in Harlingen, Texas. Ondoy plans to do her residency at the center while training in internal medicine.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Her classmate and fellow graduate Shuemara Kates Ondoy, 25, will complete a residency in internal medicine at Valley Baptist Medical Center in Harlingen, her first choice placement. Ondoy has been a Valley resident since high school when her family settled here after relocating from the Philippines. “There were plenty of times during the last four years where you wonder, ‘Am I going to make it? Do I have what it takes?’ said Ondoy of her graduation.

“There was a stigma growing up in the Valley — like the education you get down here is sub-par, which is why a lot of people want to leave after high school. That wasn’t my experience in this program. I felt I could get the same education right here that I can get anywhere else. It’s intrinsically important to have a medical school here in the Valley. As a student, you’re putting the RGV on the map. We’re giving the native people an opportunity to pursue that higher education so they don’t have to leave.”

Ondoy thanked the university’s faculty and staff for the program’s success. “There were a lot of growing pains, being the first class. The passion and the dedication of our faculty and staff made the journey worthwhile. We would not be here without them; it’s their achievement just as much as ours.”