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The new front line of medical care: Documentary chronicles health providers in NM

Nurse practitioner Chris Ruge during a home visit with a patient in Las Vegas, N.M. (Courtesy of Adria Malcolm)

Health care. It’s a hot-button topic across the United States.

In New Mexico, rural health care is a big issue as alcohol and drug addiction rank high in the maladies providers treat.

Three New Mexico-based health care providers will be in the national spotlight when the Independent Lens documentary, “The Providers,” premieres at 9 p.m. Monday on PBS.

The documentary was filmed over the course of two years by Laura Green and Anna Moot-Levin. The filmmaking duo cast a nationwide net to tell the story of rural health care in the United States.

After dozens of calls and feelers, the duo found their story in New Mexico.

The lead characters are Matt Probst, Dr. Leslie Hayes and Chris Ruge.

El Centro Family Health medical director Matt Probst listens to a patient’s heart. (Courtesy of Adria Malcolm)

Probst is a physician assistant and medical director of El Centro Family Health, which serves northern New Mexico. Hayes is a family physician and Ruge is a nurse practitioner.

“We kind of talked to between 50-60 rural health practitioners and wanted to represent the issue and personal stories,” Green said. “We got on the phone with Matt Probst from El Centro. His passion and his vision were what drew us to him. He’s an ‘in the trenches’ guy. He uses his position as a much bigger fight and he’s the person that brought the story to life.”

“The Providers” documents the lives of the three, who serve the people in rural areas around the city of Las Vegas, N.M.

In addition to being a physician assistant, Matt Probst is a leader and inspires a team of health care practitioners who serve a rural community of people who would otherwise lack access.

Probst is a New Mexico native and grew up in the Pojoaque Valley. He graduated with honors from the University of New Mexico School of Medicine in 2003.

After graduation, he knew he always wanted to move back to rural New Mexico and give back.

“This community, it’s so much a part of who I am. I can’t separate myself from it,” Probst said. “I could’ve done a lot of different things besides medicine. I could make a lot of money, live wherever I want. But, I can’t turn my back.”

Over the course of the film, the three providers remain unfailingly compassionate despite a range of challenges from the system to their patients, and sometimes even their own families.

Hayes believes it is critical for primary care doctors to treat patients who use opioids as part of their regular practice.

When other physicians don’t want “those people” in their medical center, she says, “they’re already in your waiting room – you’re just not identifying and treating them.”

Probst is coping with a physician shortage and has begun training physician assistants to be the new front line of medical care.

His own background includes two family members who have struggled with addiction – his father and sister.

“With it being a documentary, it gets into my personal life,” Probst said. “In hindsight, in some ways, I was the patient living through hardships. I don’t know if I would have let them in for the story. My life was tough at the time of filming. My struggles became part of the story. The pain that I’ve experienced, I’m hoping that by sharing the story my family and community will see it and be able to save many lives.”

Ruge is part of a special program that allows him to visit the homes of the most marginalized patients, and he believes his relationship with them is making a difference.

“The job offers me the opportunity to actually be walking alongside patients and helping them find the door,” Ruge said. “Some people you need to open the door just once. Other people it’s months and years. If you open enough doors they will walk through that door with you.”

Green and Moot-Levin traveled to New Mexico for over two years to film the documentary. Production was done over the course of 120 days.

Probst is ready to take the conversation to a national level with the premiere of the documentary.

“The knowledge is at our fingertips,” Probst said. “Everything in our community and culture is about helping each other out. It’s about learning how to survive and all of that is how I’m wired. I say to the students at UNM that rural health care is a battle. You can come out of a rural community, get educated and return to give back to it. I did it and hope that inspires others to follow a similar path.”