“It feels very full circle,” she said. “The program is realizing its mission and our alumni are practicing in these rural areas and connecting with the students coming up through the pipeline.”
The program has 49 practicing alumni, Knottenbelt said, 34 of whom are based in nine communities across New Mexico. Alumni tend to choose primary care specialties more often than their peers in the School of Medicine, she added.
Current participants in the program come from 30 of New Mexico’s 33 counties, and two thirds of them are from outside the Albuquerque metro area, she said.
This year’s Summer Practicum also sent students to Las Cruces, Las Vegas, Roswell, Hobbs, Silver City and Taos, Knottenbelt said. BA/MD alumni Nikifor Konstantinov, MD, and David Hernandez, MD, served as “circuit riders,” traveling to each of the communities for three-hour weekly seminars in which the students integrated their experiences within the framework of the social determinants of health and the Program’s Health Medicine and Human Values curriculum.
During her practicum Villarrial got to shadow fellow Farmington native William “Curtis” Young, MD, a family medicine physician who entered the BA/MD Program in 2008 and returned to the community in 2020 following a residency in South Dakota. Young’s father, physician assistant Bill Young, helped encourage Villarrial to apply to the Combined BA/MD Program while she was in high school.
Curtis Young says he had Villarrial in the room as a “fly on the wall” when he met with patients. “I introduced Sarah to them and told them she’s a Farmington girl that UNM is borrowing for a few years and then they’ll give her back,” he said.
Young’s wife, Shawna Young, MD, is a pediatrician who was a year behind him in the BA/MD Program.
“My wife was the first in her family to graduate from college, and being Navajo, she is now taking care of a near majority Navajo population in her practice,” he said. “In order to ‘hood’ someone at graduation, you have to be an MD, PhD or judge, or something. I had the amazing opportunity to place the hood on my wife at graduation.
“That’s something the BA/MD program made possible, and I’ll always be grateful for that. And now we practice together in a small New Mexico town trying to help other students believe in their dreams of helping people.”
Villarrial said shadowing Young on the job was one of the high points of her practicum experience.
“It’s been really cool,” she says. “Dr. Young is brilliant. He’s very intelligent. He’s in family medicine, so there is some down time if a patient cancels. He’ll sit me down and at a whiteboard and he’ll do a biochem lesson or he’ll teach me about a medical philosophy. He’ll ask his patients if it’s OK if I help with an exam.
“That hands-on learning is really amazing, because I think experience is the only way to learn medicine.”