At St. Mary’s, it’s a family affair
When Grand Valley residents visit their family physician, they may not think much about where that physician was educated or what compelled that doctor to ultimately practice locally. But chances are the St. Mary’s Family Medicine Residency Program is the answer to both questions.
According to Dr. Sherm Straw, director of the Family Medicine Residency Program for the past eight years, more than half of the 100-plus family physicians practicing in the area are graduates of the Family Medicine Residency Program and a half-dozen more visited the area while in medical school then returned after residencies elsewhere.
The combination of a quality education — residents spend three years in the program before graduation — and the outdoor recreational opportunities western Colorado offers has made St. Mary’s program an attractive destination for young physicians from across the country.
Last year, Straw filtered through 477 applications for eight slots. Next year, St. Mary’s is expanding the program to nine residents to meet demand and hopefully educate even more doctors who choose to stay in the area.
Although it’s not mandatory that a resident stay in the Grand Valley after completing residency, the fact that so many have through the years is why Straw called the Family Medicine Residency Program “a crown jewel for western Colorado.”
Founded in 1977 by Dr. L. Edward Ellinwood, the Family Residency Program at St. Mary’s was created to address a shortage of rural practitioners. Ellinwood believed that the only way to get family medicine doctors to western Colorado was to attract them early, Straw said.
Residents spend a few years in Grand Junction to continue their post-medical school training alongside experienced physicians. Then, when they get that precious time off — residents can work up to 100 hours a week — they retreat into the outdoors.
“The program itself was what drew me to Grand Junction,” said Dr. Rebecca Morrow, a second-year resident from the University of Iowa’s medical school. “I really wanted a program that focused on full-spectrum medicine and rural practice medicine. Then, once I was here I fell in love with ... generally everything outdoors.”
Morrow is one of eight residents in her second year of residency. The program runs three years, and there are currently eight residents in their first year and eight residents in their third year.
“The experience, the people here, you grow and work together as a team,” said Dr. Shiela Klemmetsen, a third-year resident who went to medical school at the University of Minnesota. “We get a really good experience with really well-rounded patients.”
Like many residents before her, Klemmetsen plans to stay in Grand Junction, but she can’t confirm which practice she’ll join because she hasn’t signed a contract.
Although each year of the program is unique, residents essentially spend time between St. Mary’s, where they see patients and work in a variety of hospital departments, and the stand-alone Family Medicine Center, 1160 Patterson Road, No. 42, which is open Monday through Friday with no patient limitations.
At the clinic, the residents see patients, then “present” their findings to the supervising faculty. The faculty can, in turn, go into the room at the patient’s request. Either way, the faculty and the resident consult on every single decision to help the resident build the knowledge to practice on his or her own.
“We supervise everything they do,” Straw said of the 17 faculty members with the Family Medicine Residency Program. “That’s a thing a lot of people like. We have these brand new enthusiastic people with all this knowledge and then all these gray hairs who have the wisdom. It’s a team deal.”
In hospital rotations, residents work alongside program faculty and maintain a steady on-call schedule but also work with other hospital physicians.
Dr. Paul Padyk, a physician in St. Mary’s emergency room, has been working with residents for more than 20 years when they are on rotation in emergency medicine. Residents visit with ER patients but supervising emergency room physicians are still ultimately responsible for treatment.
“In general, I enjoy it,” Padyk said. “I especially enjoy working with the residents who enjoy the environment, of course. It makes my job easier because they are providing energy and insight. This program attracts a very high quality of medical student. Overall, they are quite motivated.”
The residency program exposes physicians to a wide range of health questions, issues and diagnoses because a family physician can be the first-line of defense in prevention of diseases or illnesses and the one most knowledgable about an individual’s overall mental and physical well-being.
“Everything you can name, we do,” said Straw, admitting the general population likely doesn’t know much about the program or even that a residency program was in Grand Junction. “Their base is terrific…There isn’t the competition here there is in big cities. There isn’t one surgeon with 24 students. It is one-on-one and when you get two hours or 40 minutes off you are riding Lunch Loop.”
The appeal of Grand Junction’s program has spread.
“The reason I chose Grand Junction was a couple things. The faculty are really great. They all have a lot of experience in rural, full-spectrum medicine,” Morrow said. “The other was the residents were great. I came here knowing no one and they have become a second family. Everyone is hard-working, intelligent and loves the outdoors. It’s an easy group to get along with.”