With less than a week before graduation from the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV, Horacio Guerra found the soon-to-be realized milestone mind-boggling.
“Graduating from medical school is hard to believe,” said Guerra, who graduates today as a member of the charter class. “I feel a mix of pride, gratitude, nostalgia, and shock. I don’t think it has fully sunk in. Graduating has been a culmination of several years of hard work, which all feel like they’ve gone by so quickly. Being a member of the first class came with many challenges and large expectations to meet. I’m sad to see everyone go their separate ways into residency training, but I am also happy knowing these people will be my colleagues in medicine.”
A co-founder of the Kerkorian School of Medicine’s Latino Medical Student Association, Guerra earned his bachelor of science degree in biological sciences from UNLV, graduating magna cum laude in the Honors College. He said it was during his teenage years at Palo Verde High School in Las Vegas that his love for science first became pronounced.
“My anatomy teacher encouraged me to look at the biological sciences and the more I looked into it, the more excited I became,” Guerra said, explaining the he came to realize why the human body was seen as the most sophisticated organism on earth. “I wanted to find out more and more. I thought about medicine a little bit, but I wasn’t zeroed in on becoming a doctor then.”
There were times as an undergraduate at UNLV when Guerra thought about becoming a biochemical engineer — someone who developed new ways to use cells, enzymes, antibodies, and other biochemical agents in medicine. He did research at UNLV under the tutelage of professors Martin Schiller and Christy Strong. While his research included the study of HIV, the practice of medicine still hadn’t become his primary goal.
Taking a break
He also worked as a tutor in the UNLV Academic Success Center in biology and math, both as a student and shortly after he graduated. Not sure about his career path, Guerra decided not to immediately enter graduate school after completing his undergraduate degree in 2014.
“I’m so glad I took that time away from school,” he said. “It really helped me.”
It was during that time that he worked as a teaching assistant in molecular genetics at UNLV and as an emergency room scribe at hospitals that included Sunrise, Mountain View, and Southern Hills. “I would follow around emergency room doctors and they’d dictate their notes to me and I’d put the notes into the electronic health record. I’d ask them questions when I was interested. They’d teach me things. I liked that there was always something new. I also liked that medicine was more social than plain research. That fit who I was better.”
With his career path clear, Guerra was pleased to see that UNLV would start a new medical school in 2017. Accepted in the inaugural class, he received a full-tuition scholarship from the Engelstad Family Foundation. “I was very fortunate. It allowed me to really concentrate on my studies.” He said Kris Engelstad McGarry, who serves as trustee of the Engelstad Family Foundation, “really wants to build a solid foundation for the medical school. She really wants it to succeed.”
Like so many students at the medical school, Guerra wanted to do what he could to help during the COVID-19 pandemic. He volunteered at the UNLV Medicine call center, helping people get appointments at UNLV Medicine’s curbside testing site. “Many of the callers were worried,” he recalled. “You did what you could to calm them.”
When Guerra began medical school, he thought of pursuing a career in hematology-oncology. “I thought it was the field for me because of my heavy background with basic science research. It was not until I heard the words of one of the family medicine residents that I began to consider family medicine. The resident spoke to his reasons for choosing family medicine, one of which was to provide preventative care to his patients. He emphasized the fulfillment it gave him if he could keep his patients healthy and avoid treating the devastating consequences of chronic diseases. This stuck with me and became one of the many reasons I chose family medicine as my specialty. After this meeting, I decided to take on the role of becoming co-president and co-founder of the medical school’s first family medicine interest group.”
During his clinical rotations, Guerra said his interest in family medicine solidified. “When rotating in the family medicine clinic, I was always impressed with how easily attending physicians would recall information about their patients. A lot of these patients had been seeing these doctors for years or were family members of other patients. I feel family practice is the perfect place for me to build long-lasting relations with my patients and their families and put me in a position to provide the best possible care I can.”
An avid mountain biker, Guerra said his work as a tutor and teaching assistant will help him in family medicine. “I have learned to break down complex jargon and concepts into layman terms, which will be helpful in patient care.”
Continual learning is another big reason Guerra is attracted to the specialty of family medicine. “While many parts of primary care may become bread-and-butter practice, there are always cases that can never be predicted. A family physician once told me, ‘It is the one or two cases that stump you which keep the specialty fresh.’”
Guerra couldn’t have been happier on Match Day to learn that he would be doing his family medicine residency with the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV. “I love Las Vegas. This is my home. I wanted to stay where I know I will get quality training. There’s a great need for family practice physicians here and I will have the honor of helping my fellow Southern Nevadans stay in good health.