Las Vegas, your Eagle has landed. After a four-year journey of small steps, it’s about to take one giant leap.
That’s after clearing a trifecta of hurdles on the way to touchdown — gambling on a med-school startup, laboring under the horrific shadow of a mass shooting, and enduring the terror of a pandemic — to stick the landing.
“I thought I could be part of something that would change the trajectory of health care in Las Vegas — and I think we have,” said 29-year-old, Las Vegas-reared Lauren Hollifield, a future anesthesiologist who can also count herself a historical figure: She’s one of 50 students with strong Nevada ties ready to be rocketed into the medical galaxy as part of the first graduating class of the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV, which welcomed initial doctors-to-be in 2017.
That is one giant leap for medical-kind. And UNLV. And Nevada.
“I think now the school is going to scale up (in enrollment), and most of the students have a connection to Nevada,” Hollifield said. “They want to come back and serve Nevada. That makes me happy specifically because my family will have good health care here in Nevada — and that the school’s mission is coming to fruition.”
Two ceremonies mark this milestone: On March 19, Match Day, the students were paired with their residencies set to begin in June (Hollifield will complete hers at the University of Pennsylvania). And May 7 is the long-awaited graduation day.
Both are first-of-their-kind events for a school that admitted its charter class in 2017 while operating on preliminary accreditation from the Liaison Committee on Medical Education. It was granted full accreditation on Feb. 19.
Carving out a curriculum was the first of several obstacles the faculty and students had to scale to get here — and the least traumatic.
“Every new medical school starts out with aspirations, very optimistic ones,” said Dr. Neil Haycocks, the school’s vice dean for academic affairs and education. “When the students first arrive and everything gets down to business, there’s a fair amount of reality that trickles into things. Lots of people who want to do special things find they’re actually not that practical. You have to be realistic about what you decide to keep and what you decide to jettison.”
Or, to put it differently: “Originally, we were like guinea pigs. But I’ve since changed that terminology to being a pioneer,” said Hollifield, whose sister and husband are also students at the medical school.
She was turned toward her future career after being stunned by the health care neglect she witnessed during trips to Nicaragua, where she worked as an EMT.
“It was a rollercoaster ride,” she said of ongoing curriculum rethinking and rescheduling that essentially turned this first class into academic taste-testers. “But we have paved the way for future classes, and changes that we recommended will be passed down to other classes. So the curriculum now looks nothing like what it did when I stepped through the doors on July 17, 2017.”
Fewer than three months after she did step through those doors, the Oct. 1 mass shooting engulfed this city and the nation — the horror happening the night before their second-ever medical school exam and casting a pall on students already unsure of their path forward.
“When we established the ‘Vegas Strong’ mentality, it was very meaningful for us,” said Las Vegas-raised student William Fang, 30, a former 10th-grade biology teacher in San Diego who returned home to study at UNLV and pursue a career in family medicine/primary care. Fang will do his residency at the University of Southern California.
“That set a tone for a very long period of time and was very sobering,” Haycocks said. Then there was the tragic topper, creating the most eye-opening (and unplanned) lessons: the coronavirus pandemic that so far has claimed more than half a million American lives and slowed a bustling world down to a locked-down crawl from which we are only now — hopefully — emerging.
That’s one hell of a coming-out party for a school’s first-ever students-turned-new healers. How do you factor a once-in-a-century global health catastrophe into the learning curve of an embryonic curriculum? The long-term impact on the psyche of new health care providers is likely incalculable. However, student Caleena Longworth calculates it pretty concisely:
“It showed me that anything can happen in the world. As a physician you’ve got to be prepared to pivot and fill roles you never thought you would fill,” said the Reno-reared Longworth, 30, an aspiring family medicine practitioner who will do her residency in Salt Lake City but expects to return to Nevada to practice.
“That hugely impacted my decision to go into family medicine,” said Longworth, who served in the Nevada Air National Guard as a Medical Service Corps officer throughout medical school. When the pandemic struck, she was positioned to do something — and did.
“We all got sent home (from school), but I was actually called to active duty. I worked with the family medicine department that helped build our COVID-19 testing sites. I got to see the family medicine physicians I looked up to — that were my professors — make an outdoor clinic so they could help Nevadans get tested. That showed me that family medicine is a very versatile specialty that will step up and fill any role that it needs to, depending on what the world throws at it. It taught me to expect the unexpected.”
Beyond shared traumatic events, it is often individual experiences — instructive and heart-wrenching — that bring the most to bear on students’ decisions to practice medicine.
Fang was a teacher in San Diego before medical school. One of his students traveled from Tijuana. When she failed to come to class for a week, he paid a home visit to the teen to find out why, which turned out to be home care.
“I went to talk to her mother, and she was in bed coughing up blood,” Fang said. The teen was the primary caregiver. “It motivated me to go into family care and establish a place where people can go for health care and help relieve that shortage of primary care doctors we have.”
Why UNLV? “For me, it was time to go home,” he said. “Vegas has always been my home. I’ve lived here the longest time. A lot of hardships came upon my family in terms of health issues. The best way I can take care of them is to be near them.”
Nicaragua turned out to be the medical “call to arms” for Hollifield, who made five trips to the Central American nation, one time toting 70,000 prenatal vitamins with her.
“I was communicating with patients that had walked miles and waited hours just to see a physician. Maybe it’s not the exact same situation in Las Vegas, where no one is walking miles down Charleston Boulevard to see a physician. But they would have to wait months to see specialty care,” said Hollifield, whose dad is a physician and mom holds a doctorate in public health.
“I knew that we had horrible health care in Nevada. To be part of a medical school whose whole entire purpose was to change health care in Nevada really aligned with my mission to go into medicine.”
Raise a glass of bubbly to the inaugural School of Medicine graduating class of 2021.
Because the Eagle has landed.