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Practicing family medicine comes from the heart

Photo of Isaac Van Sligtenhorst, M.D. leaning against a statue on a grassy lawn, wearing his white coat
Isaac Van Sligtenhorst, M.D. (PHOTO CREDIT: Michelle Ray)

Isaac Van Sligtenhorst, M.D., first pursued a career as a lead research scientist in pharmaceutical drug discovery with a focus on cardiovascular disease. Then one day, for reasons that he said still aren’t clear to him, the research slowly became less interesting. The work had not changed, the research was still cutting-edge and fast-paced, but it no longer felt like the right fit.

At the same time, his father had a heart scare. “He had an arrhythmia and passed out while driving,” said Van Slightenhorst. “Fortunately he was OK, but we had to see eight different doctors until we found the right one to treat him. One day, my mother looked at me and said, ‘You could do this, why don’t you?’ and so she planted a seed that grew.”

Van Slightenhorst sought advice from mentors, including the vice president of the company he worked for at the time, who had also been in academia and clinical care.

“He said, ‘Do it, you won’t regret it’ and I don’t,” said Van Slightenhorst, who made a dramatic turn in his life and is now, at the age of 42, the oldest family medicine resident at McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). “My passion for medicine evolved over time and being a physician has grown into something that I love.”

In addition to the challenge of being the oldest residents at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, he experienced life-altering tragedy in his first two years of medical school when his brother and then father were diagnosed with advanced cancer. “I spent a great deal of time at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center caring for my brother and then my father,” Van Slightenhorst shared.

“From diagnosis to death, my brother fought for 15 months,” said Van Slightenhorst, whose father survived the same cancer that took his brother’s life. “With the passing of my brother, the greatest life lesson I’ve learned is unconditional love for loved ones,” said Van Slightenhorst. “Practicing medicine isn’t a career for me, it’s a calling.”

He found the most fulfillment in becoming a family medicine doctor because it gives him the opportunity to care for patients during every stage of life.

When faced with a difficult case or end-of-life care for a patient, “I have the rare privilege of experience that allows me to be present with each patient, establish trust with them and provide the best care I can,” he said.

Now that he is nearing the end of his residency, Van Slightenhorst is looking forward to a very long vacation or simply some uninterrupted sleep. 

-Written by Michelle Ray

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