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Bonds form quickly among students at new medical school

LAS CRUCES – Spirits were high Thursday morning on the campus of the Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine, the state’s newest medical school. On Wednesday, students in the inaugural class had taken their first exam — 100 questions in 150 minutes. It covered what they had learned in the first seven days of school.

By all accounts, it was intense. Many students were studying 10 hours or more each day leading up to the exam.

“In many ways, this will be their hardest test,” said Robert Ketchum, associate dean for academic affairs and preclinical education. “They’re still adjusting to this amount of material, a new style of testing and a new approach to learning. But they’re doing pretty well.”

Med school chemistry

Classes began Aug. 15 at BCOM, but even in the second week, a spirit of camaraderie is beginning to develop among the 162 students in the school’s first class.

“It seems kind of silly, but student life really is a lot of fun,” said John Rajala. Rajala, 29, is originally from McKinney, Texas. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Biology at the University of North Texas in Denton, and a master’s in Medical Science at the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine in Houston.

“It’s a lot, and it’s intimidating,” Rajala said. “You’ve got to just hold on, and take in every bit of material you can. But everyone is so supportive, and we take time to go and do things–whether it’s a movie, or everyone getting together to get a bite to eat. It’s kind of funny when we show up at a restaurant and have to pull six tables together for 45 students. It’s awesome, because there is already a sense of community.”

Ketchum, comparing the academic rigors of medical school to the experiences shared by an Army platoon, said the camaraderie he has seen develop is natural.

“These kids are in class 25 or more hours a week,” he said. “And for every hour in class, they’re expected to do at least two hours of outside study. So that’s 75 to 80 hours a week of academic focus. That’s really demanding. When you go through stressful and demanding situations as a group, that closeness develops naturally.”

Student diversity

Most students at Burrell are a little older than are traditional medical school students. They come from a variety of backgrounds.

Rajala, for instance, was raised by two doctors. His mother is an M.D. and his father is a D.O. The possibility of him becoming a doctor never seemed entirely remote to him, he said, though he never felt like he was smart enough to do it.

“My dad always says, ‘I’m not smart, I just work hard.’ And he’s the hardest-working guy I know,” Rajala said. “I’ll be honest. I was awake for maybe 60 percent of high school; I slept a lot in class, and didn’t go a lot. I did all the things that would set you up not to go to college. If you look at the beginning of my college career, nobody would think for one second that I’d make it to any kind of graduate school, much less medical school.”

Stephanie Ayala, 30, was raised by a single mother in upstate New York. She said she didn’t grow up with the idea that medical school was possible for girls like her. She began taking community college classes, before going on to earn a dual bachelor’s in Biology and Anthropology. She is also a paramedic.

“I actually put medical school off for a year, thinking I couldn’t do it — just sort of my own restrictions that I’ve placed on myself,” Ayala said. “I grew up poor, with a single parent. It wasn’t until I was around doctors, one of whom was a Hispanic female, that I said, ‘Maybe I can do this. Maybe I should try.'”

She said her own experience has created in her a strong desire to reach out to young girls like she was, and to let them know that it’s possible to become a doctor.

“I know where I was and what I was feeling,” she said. “And I know it was completely unwarranted. There are a lot of people in that same situation, saying ‘I don’t have any money. How am I going to come from a poor family and become a doctor?’ But that’s just a mental barrier that, unfortunately, society tends to build up.”

Ayala said she hopes high school students who might be good at science will realize it is not impossible to become a doctor.

“I hope they open up a newspaper and see the medical school class, and it’s half Hispanic, and there are Native Americans, and they say, ‘Wow. Maybe I can do this,'” Ayala said.

From the Marines to medical school

Chris Hooshmand, 31, grew up in Orange County, California. He, too, was raised by a single mother in a low-income family. After graduating high school, he served four years in the Marine Corps before attending community college on the G.I. Bill. He went on to earn a bachelor’s in Cognitive Science from the University of California at Irvine. He is also an EMT.

“I think the diversity among students here is a really big deal,” Hooshmand said. “I’m a veteran, and when I got out of the Marine Corps, there were guys I served with who didn’t even think they could go to college. They were talking about becoming cops and truck drivers. So when I posted my photo from the White Coat ceremony a few weeks ago, a lot of my buddies couldn’t even believe it.”

He said he received several text messages from fellow Marines, telling him how he had inspired them.

“I really don’t think my dad even thought I could get here,” he said. “There’s just this blue-collar divider, and physicians either come from a family of physicians, or people you’ve never seen. But when you put in people of color, or veterans — people from diverse backgrounds and from other parts of the community, I can relate to that person. If he can do it, I can do it. And that’s an important message.”

All three students — Ayala, Rajala and Hooshmand — began their education at community colleges, not the typical pathway to medical school.

“In more traditional medical schools, you have students who are straight out of grad school,” Ayala said. “In our class, that’s the rare exception. We have people with much more diverse backgrounds. A lot of us have had other careers. There is no prescribed pathway to get here. Some people have degrees in the arts; one person in our class was a chef. That life experience lends itself to a maturity, I feel, that allows us to approach patients differently.”

Meeting a need

When BCOM was conceived, part of its mission was to create diversity among doctors. It was also designed to create doctors in underserved areas along the borderland.

Rajala said Burrell is poised to have an impact.

“Part of it’s a numbers game,” the student said. “If you look at the age group of medical school students, and where they’re at in their life, a lot of students will get married while they’re in med school or while doing residencies, and they’ll start families. And once you do those things, you’re much less likely to move. You’re likely to do your residency in the region where you went to medical school, and you’re very likely to start a practice in the region where you did your residency.”

Just having a school that is generating graduates in the area will lead to an increase in practicing physicians in the region, Rajala said.

“Medical school is four years, and the fastest you can become a doctor is a three-year residency,” Hooshmand said. “So you’re looking at seven to ten years. After I’ve spent nearly a decade in Las Cruces, am I going to go home? Is that really home anymore? I think that, because Burrell has worked so hard to create residencies here, these students less likely to go anywhere else.”

Learning environment

Glenn Nordehn is a faculty member and is BCOM’s assistant dean of undergraduate clinical education. Nordehn said the school year began, essentially, without a hitch.

“I’ve worked at two other medical schools, both over 100 years old, and the first day of class here was about the same,” he said, sitting at a high table in the Bear Den, a coffee shop on the building’s first floor. “We have a new idea, the concept of the school is new. We have a new building. We have all new faculty and new students. And we have no ability to say, ‘Let’s just do it like last year.’ I would have expected it to be a little more chaotic, but it wasn’t.”

Students gathered in commons areas and in lecture halls, studying quietly Thursday morning after an 8 a.m. lecture. In a seminar room, about 35 students in the Foundations in Biomedical Science program learned about Crouzon Syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by the premature fusion of certain skull bones. In other classrooms, small groups of students paired up to learn about SOAP notes and interviewing for medical charts. SOAP, which stands for subjective, objective, assessment and plan, is a method employed by physicians to write out notes in a patient’s chart.

A handful of students gathered in the library, where some faculty members met with students in glass-walled conference rooms.

At BCOM, virtually every commons area — from the second-floor landing to the outdoor courtyard — is designed with studying in mind. And students take full advantage of those spaces. Tables in the Bear Den are outfitted with electrical outlets and USB ports for charging laptops and mobile devices.

All of the students said they feel they have been welcomed with open arms by the residents of Las Cruces.

“Everyone is so nice, it almost seems like a trick,” Hooshmand laughed. “My landlady bakes me cookies and brings them by when I’m studying.”

“Every time someone asks me why I moved here and I tell them it was to attend medical school, they get so excited,” Ayala added. “They say, ‘I’ve been reading about that!’ and they’re so excited. It’s really important that members of the community understand that our doors are always open. They can come and check it out. I saw a couple driving around the parking lot, and it was pretty clear they were just checking it out. I told them, ‘You can come in and check it out if you want,’ and they said, ‘Are you sure?’ We don’t want to be the unapproachable medical school on the hill.”

Damien Willis may be reached at 575-541-5468, dawillis@lcsun-news.com or @damienwillis on Twitter.

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©2016 the Las Cruces Sun-News (Las Cruces, N.M.)

Visit the Las Cruces Sun-News (Las Cruces, N.M.) at www.lcsun-news.com

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