Left to right, Christian Estrada, Francisco Merced, Thyra Gutierrez, Veronica Beyley, Vanessa Perez, Ricardo Arribas and Emilio Garcia.
Imagine you have just started your final year of medical school and you get some really bad news: your school has lost its accreditation and you will not be allowed to graduate. You’re not going to be a doctor.
That’s what happened to about 70 fourth-year medical students at the San Juan Bautista School of Medicine in Puerto Rico when an affiliated hospital was having financial problems and the accrediting authority for medical education in Canada and the United States, including Puerto Rico, disqualified the school.
In stepped some faculty members from UTMB and, as a result, 10 men and women proudly walked across the stage at Moody Gardens Convention Center as they graduated with more than 200 other UTMB medical students.
“They had taken away our dream of becoming a doctor and UTMB gave us back that dream,” said Emilio Garcia, of Miami. “Not only did UTMB accept us as medical students, they also made sure we were a part of the family.” Garcia will be going on to his residency in internal medicine at Mount Sinai in Miami.
On Oct. 3, 2011, the Liaison Committee on Medical Education ruled that the clinical facilities associated with the Puerto Rican school were inadequate and stripped the school of its accreditation.
“I thought I was not going to get to graduate — to be a doctor,” said Thyra Gutierrez. “I’ve always wanted to be a doctor and I thought that it wasn’t going to happen.”
Almost immediately, students sent out an appeal through the Association of American Medical Colleges, and that’s when UTMB’s Drs. Judith Rowen, Lauree Thomas and Jeffrey Rabek stepped up and set in motion a small army at UTMB to get the students quickly vetted, qualified, enrolled and into classes.
“We did it because it was the right thing to do, and it was a way for us to ‘pay it forward’ since schools around the state took in our students after Hurricane Ike,” said Rowen, assistant dean of educational affairs at UTMB.
Rabek wholeheartedly agreed, saying, “Given our experience with Ike and the plight of the San Juan Bautista students, how could we not help?”
Thomas said that the “quintessential philosophy of medicine is to help others. Our response was unequivocal; we will help. We’re so grateful to all the staff who worked so hard to make this happen. We’ll not only see the results when they graduate but we will also see results down the road through all the lives that will be impacted by these 10 doctors.”
It’s also fitting to note that UTMB’s Class of 2012 had just started medical school in 2008 when Hurricane Ike disrupted their education for a brief time as well.
Christian Estrada was in a clinical rotation in Pennsylvania when he heard the news about the San Juan Bautista school. “It was one of the worst experiences of my life,” said Estrada, who is from Elizabeth, N.J. “But then it was a complete 180. Everyone at UTMB made sure that we all had a smooth transition.”
While all the students praised UTMB efforts to get them to Galveston, they also know that it was not a simple process. It meant several UTMB departments had to act quickly, coordinating and orchestrating a series of steps that involved numerous educational and medical groups across the nation. Deadlines loomed and it would take a herculean effort to get everything in place. In addition, each student had to have a customized schedule to assure they would graduate on time and that requirements for residency programs and certifications would be met. Housing had to be found. Backgrounds had to be checked.
“The timing of their school closure really put them in jeopardy — they were all kicked out of the matching program and their seats for the licensure exams since they were no longer from an accredited school,” Rowen explained. “We had days to get them back in the system so they could pursue residency training. All of them matched in the specialty of their choice. I am proud of them, and can’t wait to see them in their UTMB caps and gowns.”
And it’s fair to say that the students will not soon forget their experience here.
“UTMB not only accepted us so that we could become doctors, they made sure that we were part of the family,” said Garcia. “They opened up their arms to us. So many other medical schools didn’t even try to help.”