New Crop of Aspiring MDs Steps Up to Starting Line

08/20/09  Portland, Ore.

Eighty-eight of the 120 students who start the journey this week toward a medical degree at OHSU are Oregon residents – the most in almost two decades

WHAT:  White Coat Ceremony and 2009 J.S. Reinschmidt, M.D., Memorial Lecture

WHEN: Friday, Aug. 21, 2009, at 1 p.m.                          

WHERE: OHSU Auditorium, Old Library Building, Marquam Hill Campus

Eighty-eight of the 120 students who embark this week on the four-year quest for a medical degree at the Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine – or 73 percent of the class – are Oregon residents, the greatest number of home-grown aspiring physicians to enroll at OHSU in 18 years.

They and the rest of the class of 2013 will be enrobed in white coats, the iconic garb of the medical profession, on Friday, Aug. 21, in the OHSU Auditorium (Old Library) when they swear, by reciting the Oath of Geneva – the modern Hippocratic Oath, to consecrate their lives to the humanitarian goals of medicine.

"The members of the class of 2013 were winnowed from a total of 4,578 applications," said Tana A. Grady-Weliky, M.D., OHSU associate dean for medical education, "and each has followed his or her own unique path to reach this point."

Three Oregonians in the class are emblematic of the commitment and accomplishments of all 120 entering students.

For Nathan Garton, 26, of Grants Pass, Ore., the decision to become a physician crystallized when he worked as a hospice volunteer at Portland's Adventist Medical Center interviewing terminally ill patients and chronicling the story of their lives for the benefit of both the patients and their families. In that process he also learned about the medical histories that brought people to their final chapters.

"I'm interested in stories, and to me that's a lot of what being a doctor is about, asking the story of a person's body and trying to find out the specific events that led them to you. Writing those stories was where it all kind of clicked for me and it's what made me decide that going into medicine was the absolute perfect thing for me."

That decision resolved something of a tug of war between an ambition to become a writer and a desire to apply his interest in science in a hands-on way. Garton spent his last three undergraduate years at Bennington College in Vermont, a famous breeding ground for writers, graduating with a double major in English and physics. During summers he was an intern at Tin House, the Portland-based literary magazine. But he was drawn to science by a fascination with the saga of his great uncle, a nuclear physicist, who sought to work out a proof knocking a chink in Bell's theorem of quantum mechanics. It was a quixotic effort to make sense of a series of random but tragic family events. Garton inherited the unfinished proof when his great uncle died and grappled with it in producing his senior thesis at Bennington.

While engaged in post-baccalaureate pre-med studies at Portland State University, Garton helped expand and refine the "Defining Moments" story keepers program at Adventist and also volunteered in an OHSU emergency medicine department program for students, which exposed him to the contrast between the achingly slow rhythms of a hospice and the often super-frenetic pace of an emergency room.

It may be early, but Garton already is giving some thought to his professional career beyond medical school. "I'm really interested in primary care in a rural setting on the Oregon coast where my grandparents live, an area that's absurdly barren when it comes to doctors."   But he also confesses to a great interest in neurology and mapping neuro pathways.

Maliheh Nakhai, 26, who was raised in Eugene and graduated from South Eugene High School, knew early on what she wanted to do. She had an inkling she might want a career in science after her elementary school class dissected a frog because, despite an initial squeamishness, she found herself totally enthralled.

By the time she was a high school freshman Nakhai was pretty sure of what she wanted to do even though she wasn't certain what it would entail. She set about finding out by partipating in Health Occupations Students of America all through high school and volunteering as a certified nursing assistant at Eugene's Sacred Heart Medical Center. She majored in biology at Mills College in California and after graduating in 2006 she moved to Ashland, Ore., where she worked for three years as a research coordinator at the Clinical Research Institute of Southern Oregon which conducts clinical trials. She also did volunteer work with La Clinica del Valle, which provides health care services to low-income, uninsured and underserved communities at three centers in Jackson County, Oregon.

Nakhai's other passion is soccer, which she concedes virtually ruled her life for a time. She was captain of the women's soccer team at Mills and the junior varsity team in high school. And she is looking, at least at this point, toward the possibility of marrying up her passions by specializing in sports medicine or orthopaedics. She also is keen on providing medical care in some way to traditionally underserved populations. "I have grand ideas for what I'm going to do, but I really don't know what it will be."

Jenna Emerson, 23, begins her studies at OHSU with a clear-eyed perspective on the health care needs of rural populations in Oregon as well as in the "pretty drastic environment" of poverty stricken countries like Guatemala where she was a health care aide for a year after college. The daughter of the only bovine veterinarian in southern Tillamook County where dairy farming is the leading industry, Emerson attended Nestucca High School in Cloverdale (pop. 249) then went on to major in biology at Carroll College in Montana. As a youth she assisted her father on his rounds and during surgeries. In college she worked in a veterinary clinic. But she transferred her focus to human health when she became aware of the plight of an increasing number of immigrant agricultural workers in Tillamook County. That commitment deepened in Guatemala where she found herself doing post-operational stitching and supporting appendectomies in the poorly equipped, understaffed National Hospital. She also worked for Faith in Practice, an American non-governmental organization that sends health care teams to remote Guatemalan villages.

In prepared remarks for the White Coat Ceremony welcoming to his institution the newest crop of medical students, OHSU President Joe Robertson, M.D., M.B.A., lets them in on a profound change they will notice in the way they are perceived immediately after donning their white coats. "People will see you differently. It is the response to the white coat that has humbled me from the very first day I put it on. As a physician, even as a medical student, people will implicitly trust you. The mantle of trustworthiness is something you will never shed. Your charge is always to live up to that trust."

James C. Chesnutt, M.D., a past winner of the OHSU School of Medicine's most prestigious student award, the Gold Headed Cane, will advise the new students in his keynote address – the J.S. Reinschmidt, M.D., Memorial Lecture – "to maintain the core aspirations and values that helped them get to where they are today."  Chesnutt, an assistant professor of orthopaedics, OHSU School of Medicine, will also remind them that "maintaining a strong sense of family and community will also help them remain grounded and close to the human side of medicine."