New med students embody Rio Grande Valley's progress

Photo by Callie Richmond

If you watch cable news, or listen to certain political speeches, you may get the impression that here on the border we’re all donning Kevlar waiting for someone to build us a huge wall.

But another fashion statement that made local headlines recently portrays a much more accurate picture of life in Hidalgo County. It’s one of optimism, empowerment and a community that is actively shaping its own future: white coats.

Recently, 55 promising young medical students donned their white coats for the very first time as the inaugural class at the School of Medicine at University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, as well as an additional 42 in our second cohort of medical residents.

For a community that has long suffered from brain drain, losing too many of our best and brightest, it’s worth noting that one-third of the incoming medical school class are from right here in the Rio Grande Valley, proud graduates of UT-Rio Grande Valley and the previous institutions of UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville. Among the medical students and residents are also a handful of Ivy League graduates, returning home eager to serve the communities that raised them.

As thrilled as we are, make no mistake, they have their work cut out for them. Four in 10 Hidalgo County residents lack proper health insurance. One in four Hidalgo County residents suffer from diabetes, and we’re finding Type 2 diabetes, typically a disease found in older adults, more and more in children. Nearly 40 percent of residents are considered obese. And for years we’ve been forced to tackle these disparities and challenges with one hand tied behind our back, as the doctor shortage means we have fewer than six primary care physicians for every 10,000 residents, compared to a state average of more than nine.

These factors all come with costs: uninsured crowding emergency rooms, diabetes care costs soaring, lost work days and more. Yet for years, state leaders have avoided the necessary investments. We have a saying in South Texas, lo barato cuesta caro — it can be expensive to be cheap.

We realize, though, there will always be limitations to funding. That’s why we need to be smart about our approach too. Today’s students are being trained across disciplines, in a team-based approach to medicine that emphasizes quality over quantity. Primary care doctors and nurses work in collaboration with psychologists and social workers to address the underlying factors that affect a person’s health. Which explains why the School of Medicine’s Peña Center also offers GED classes — education and life skills are critical to helping young people fight off the pressure of drugs and unhealthy habits.

Embedded in the mission, at every stage of education and development of health care professionals, is a commitment to community. You see it in the GED classes, the partnerships with the county that provide free screenings and diabetes education classes, and in the incorporation of promotoras who help overcome language and economic barriers to promote health literacy and education.

This is not the story you hear in the national media, but it is the story of who we are: a community that bands together to lift each other up. We owe a debt of gratitude to the visionary leadership of the University of Texas Board of Regents, as well as former Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and current Chancellor Admiral McRaven, who recognized the need to tackle the growing health disparities in the Valley.

Under the leadership of Chancellor John Sharp, Texas A&M is growing its presence in the Rio Grande Valley, bringing more educational opportunities and facilities to the region, and focusing on regional health care needs through innovative programs such as Healthy South Texas.

It also took enacting legislation, led by Sens. Chuy Hinojosa and Eddie Lucio Jr., and with the full support of my South Texas colleagues in the House. While there are many more to thank, the full story wouldn’t be told without recognizing the critical role of business and community leaders who overcame regional turf wars and short-term thinking to work together to turn this opportunity into reality.

In the end, these men and women in white coats are not only a sign of hope for the Valley but also a sign of progress for the future of Texas.

Disclosure: The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

R.D. "Bobby" Guerra

State representative, D-Mission