HOUSTON – (March 13, 2018) – A former police officer, a mother of seven children, an inline speed skater – these are some of the many faces in the 2018 graduating class of McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth).
More than 225 fourth-year McGovern Medical School students will get their medical residency assignments on Friday, March 16, as they continue their journey to become practicing physicians. Called Match Day and coordinated by the National Resident Matching Program, the pairing of students with specialized residency training programs occurs concurrently at medical schools across the country.
At McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, festivities begin at 10:30 a.m. in Webber Plaza with a class photo, followed by introductions and remarks from UTHealth leaders. Beginning at 11:15 a.m., one by one, students retrieve cream-colored linen envelopes, each bearing their name. Once everyone has an envelope in hand, they are given a cue to open their envelopes.
“Match Day is an exciting day for medical students across the U.S. They share with peers at every school in the nation the aspirations and anxiety of the day—opening an envelope that tells them where they will begin their postgraduate clinical training as newly minted physicians,” said Barbara Stoll, M.D., H. Wayne Hightower Distinguished Professor in the Medical Sciences and dean of McGovern Medical School.
When Juan Deleija-Lujano completes his residency in internal medicine, the 25-year-old from Weslaco plans to practice medicine back in the Rio Grande Valley. Physicians are in short supply in parts of South Texas and the need is great with elevated levels of diabetes and other chronic illnesses. Initially interested in becoming an engineer, Deleija-Lujano’s switch to medicine was influenced by a summer at McGovern Medical School. As part of a program to encourage careers in medicine (the Joint Admission Medical Program) in 2013, Deleija-Lujano got a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to be a medical student and an opportunity to work with researchers in the biochemistry department. “It’s hard to beat the Texas Medical Center when it comes to health care. There is so much technology here,” he said. Internal medicine covers many medical specialties and Deleija-Lujano plans to concentrate on the care of critically ill patients. With degrees from The Science Academy of South Texas in Mercedes and The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Deleija-Lujano will use the problem-solving skills he honed in chemistry to help people at one of the most vulnerable times in their lives. “I like figuring out how things work and come together,” he said.
Former competitive inline speed skater Brandon Esianor, 25, has made a name for himself at McGovern Medical School. In his second year, Esianor served as president of the Student National Medical Association (SNMA), the oldest and largest student-run organization focused on the needs and concerns of medical students of color. During his tenure as president, the chapter was recognized as SNMA National Chapter of the Year “Through SNMA, I found purpose outside of the classroom and confirmed my passion to diversify the face of medicine,” said Esianor, who will be the first doctor in his family. Esianor was also elected by medical school peers from across the country to serve as a National Delegate on the Association of American Medical Colleges’ Administrative Board. Esianor was born in Brooklyn, New York, but spent much of his childhood in Ghana, where he developed a strong work ethic that has been integral to his medical career. At the age of 8, he returned to the U.S. to live with his mother in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Esianor’s mother introduced him to inline speed skating and he went on to win many national medals and competed at the international level. The University of Texas at Arlington graduate now cycles and will compete in the 2018 BP MS 150 but says speed skating taught him about sacrifice and dedication. He hopes to use those skills when he matches to an otolaryngology residency program. “From the improvement in quality of life to the lifesaving measures of head and neck cancer surgery, the versatile nature of the specialty and impact made on patients has inspired me,” said Esianor.
When Anna Garcia, 34, strides up to the table to receive her Match Day envelope, she will have given birth a month ago to the youngest of the seven children she shares with husband Fernando. A former chef and restaurant worker, she readily admits that if you had told her 10 years ago she would arrive at this place surrounded by family, holding her infant son, she would have accused you of lying. Now she is a living example of determination, following a dream she had as a young girl through single motherhood, marriage, college and medical school. Unlike most of the students awaiting their next assignment, Garcia already knows – as part of the military match she heads for her residency in obstetrics and gynecology at San Antonio Military Medical Center. Garcia grew up in The Woodlands, graduating high school at age 16. She spent a year abroad in Mexico and then attended the University of Arizona before dropping out to raise her daughter. She met Fernando while they both worked at a restaurant in The Woodlands. She had one child, he had three and together they had three more. “I always loved science and biology and wanted to be a doctor,” Garcia said. “The idea of taking care of people appealed to me, but I was intimidated. Finally, I decided I was tired of doing terrible jobs so I said, ‘I’m going for it.’” She and her husband both graduated from the University of Houston-Downtown. He went on to get a master’s degree while she entered medical school on an Air Force scholarship. The family will be relocating soon for her four-year residency, followed by four years of active service. “I was interested in a surgical specialty,” she said. “I am a hands-on person and used to a restaurant’s fast-paced environment so OB-GYN fit me.”
A lawman turned soon-to-be doctor, Blake Henchcliffe, 37, of Arlington won’t be shy about enforcing physician orders. When Henchcliffe wasn’t studying at West Texas A&M University in the Texas Panhandle, he was keeping the peace in Amarillo for the city’s police department. “That’s how I supported myself while earning a bachelor's degree in general studies and an M.B.A.,” Henchcliffe said. If anyone knows how to handle people under difficult circumstances, it’s Henchcliffe. “As a police officer, you learn how to deal with a lot of responsibility,” he said. Henchcliffe says these skills will serve him well in his career as a psychiatrist. He added, “To be a good psychiatrist, you must be a good listener, which involves listening to what is being said as well as to what isn’t being said. In addition, you need to be empathetic.” Henchcliffe sees himself eventually completing a pain management fellowship. A graduate of Martin High School in Arlington, Henchcliffe and his wife Natalie have a 10-month-old son named Pete. “I always wanted to go to medical school and now my dream is being fulfilled,” he said.
Meredith Hinds and Justin Nguyen are participating in what’s known as the couple’s match. They met in the fall of their first year of medical school at a class mixer, trained for a marathon together and had their first date in the spring. He popped the question from a balcony at Disneyworld against a backdrop of fireworks. Now, a week away from their wedding, they will wait hand in hand to see how they fare. They are unusual not only because they are part of couples’ match, but also because Nguyen has already matched in his chosen specialty, urology, which has its own match system. In January, he matched to Yale, the culmination of a whirlwind of 22 interviews each as they crisscrossed the country. Those interviews included several programs within 90 minutes of New Haven, Conn. Hinds would consider it an honor to join any of them as a pediatric resident. “I am confident that wherever I go, it will be the right place for me,” Hinds said. “I have always loved working with kids, especially underserved kids. I want to equip parents with the knowledge to take care of their child the right way. You create a team with the parent and I like that added dimension.” Hinds and Nguyen both grew up in the Houston area just 20 minutes apart. She went to The Woodlands High School and he went to Klein High School. “At the end of the day, we make a really strong team and he’s worth it,” Hinds said. “I wouldn’t have made it through all this without him.”
Also participating in the couple’s match this year are Eva Valilis, 25, and Tahseen Karim, 25, first-generation Americans who met while attending The University of Texas at Austin and began dating at McGovern Medical School. Valilis’s parents are Greek and though she moved around a lot growing up, she considers El Paso home. Medicine runs in the Valilis family – her father is an oncologist and her brother, Nick, attended McGovern Medical School before her. “When I interviewed for medical school, I knew that’s where I wanted to go and I hoped Nick and I would be in school together,” said Valilis. During Nick’s first year of medical school, he was diagnosed with leukemia and began treatment at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. During her visits with Nick, Valilis became interested in internal medicine and began working with Herbert DuPont, M.D., of UTHealth School of Public Health, on an innovative way to treat a common hospital-acquired infection called Clostridium difficile. Nick was one of Valilis’s biggest supporters and though he passed away last year, he remains a source of motivation for her as she pursues a career in internal medicine. Karim was born in Houston to Bangladeshi parents and raised in Huntsville. He hopes to match to a pediatrics residency program, having realized his passion for pediatrics during a college trip to Bangladesh, where he worked at a hospital with children who suffered from diarrheal illnesses. “That really opened up my eyes. After you take away the first-world amenities, it’s just you and the patient,” said Karim. Both Valilis and Karim are class officers at McGovern Medical School – Valilis serves as academic senator and Karim as service senator.
David Savage’s decision to become a cancer fighter was influenced by a computer science teacher at Austin College in Sherman. “She was very excited when I decided to become a doctor,” said Savage, 33, of Lindale. “She kept in touch and wrote from time to time.” Her name was Shellene Kelley and she would later succumb to breast cancer. “That drove home the importance of the work we do,” he said. Savage is one of only a handful of students at McGovern Medical School who are earning both a medical degree and a doctoral degree. Referred to as physician scientists or double docs, M.D./Ph.D. students are trained to treat patients and conduct high-level biomedical research. Savage’s dissertation is on a novel drug treatment for a rare tumor in children. A volunteer in a refugee assistance program, Savage developed a TED talk on the challenges faced by people coming from Africa and Asia. Asked what makes a good doctor, Savage said, “Someone who strives for excellence in caring for other people.”
Nujeen Zibari, 26, was born and raised in Plano as a child of political refugees from Kurdistan in northern Iraq. She grew up wanting to work in health care like her father, who arrived to the U.S. in the 1970s with $200 in his pocket and spoke no English, but worked hard to become certified as a physician assistant. When Zibari was 4 years old, her cousin was diagnosed with a rare metabolic disorder. Zibari asked her father why he couldn’t help treat her cousin. He answered that there were specific doctors who cared for children – “kiddie doctors” – and they would provide him with the best care. “Since then, I’ve always wanted to be a pediatrician,” said Zibari. When Zibari was 15, her cousin passed away – he was 19 years old. “Whenever I’m tired, I remember him always,” said Zibari. Like Zibari’s father and cousin, her mother is a source of inspiration for her. After all the persecution she and her husband endured in Iraq – growing up in a war zone and watching friends and family members be killed – they persevered. Zibari’s mother taught her to work hard and always be selfless, giving and loving. During her time at McGovern Medical School, Zibari has worked on research and outreach projects for underserved communities, including improving access to primary care providers for former juvenile detainees and organizing students from UTHealth’s six schools to participate in a day of service. Zibari is also involved in McGovern Medical School’s global health scholarly concentration and will complete her capstone project in Kurdistan later this spring.
-Written by Rob Cahill, Deborah Mann Lake and Hannah Rhodes