Brian Lopez and Cassie Bailey
Brian Lopez and his fiancee Cassie Bailey met in medical school and plan to stay in New Mexico to practice family medicine.

When opportunity knocks, Brian Lopez opens the door. That’s what the third-year University of New Mexico medical school student did when he learned of a special UNM program aimed at recruiting high-achieving New Mexico high school seniors.

Now Lopez and his fiancee, Cassie Bailey, also in her third year at UNM’s School of Medicine, are forging a path through another door of opportunity – one they hope will lead to their own family medicine clinic in rural New Mexico.

A native of Tucumcari in Eastern New Mexico, Lopez is a product of UNM’s BA/MD program, an ambitious partnership between UNM’s College of Arts and Sciences and School of Medicine that cultivates physicians in New Mexico’s smaller towns and communities.

In its seventh year, the BA/MD program recruits talented New Mexico high school seniors from across the state who show proclivity and passion for the health sciences. Qualified students are automatically accepted into UNM’s School of Medicine in their freshman year at UNM, provided they are able to adhere to rigorous academic standards through their undergraduate stay. The goal is to train physicians that will practice in New Mexico’s rural and underserved communities, where they are sorely needed.

“The BA/MD Program was amazing,” Lopez says. “A recruiter came to my high school and talked to us about it. I was a good student and interested in health sciences, but this program really pulled me into medicine and gave me an opportunity I might not otherwise have had.”

More doors of opportunity
Lopez and Bailey, who began dating in their first year of medical school, chose Santa Rosa for their preceptorships because the local physician, Dr. Randy Brown, was a family friend of Lopez’s. This so-called Practical Immersion Experience (PIE) is an eight-week clinical program that places students in rural community clinics. Administered through UNM’s School of Medicine, the PIE enables medical students early in their graduate education to care for patients while developing a community health project. Through this experience, they learn and experience the lifestyle and business operations of a community physician.

Ironically, Brown was a UNM medical student decades earlier and returned home after medical school, although that was not his intent.

“I was completing my internship at UNM when Santa Rosa lost its hospital,” he says. “I thought I’d spend a little time here until the community could get back on its feet healthcare-wise. I had these wonderful relationships growing up here and at some point I realized I couldn’t leave.”

He suspected Lopez - whose hometown of Tucumcari is just 60 miles east of Santa Rosa - might feel the same and encouraged him and Bailey both to give the Santa Rosa Medical Clinical a try.

Although Lopez had a pretty good notion of what he was in for, his future fiancee Bailey didn’t. The Woodstock, N.Y., native moved to New Mexico to be with her mother after undergraduate work at Binghamton University.

“I came from an unfiltered community in the Northeast,” she says. “My experience in New Mexico has been very different. Santa Rosa is incredibly warm and friendly. There were parts that took a little adjustment – by me and the townspeople – but I quickly came to enjoy the pace and comfort of my daily interactions in the clinic.”

Lopez and Bailey so enjoyed the experience that they requested Brown’s clinic again for their third-year family medicine clerkship, which ended in February.

“Through these School of Medicine programs, I’ve entered into something that I had no idea would be so much fun,” Bailey says.

Lopez isn’t surprised.

“This is where I’m from. Santa Rosa and Tucumcari are where I want to end up,” he says. “To me, small-town family medicine is real medicine. I love the idea of having the necessary skill sets to take care of any patient who walks in the door, whether for a diabetes checkup or a motor vehicle accident.”

Welcome home
For Baily, the trust that develops between patient and doctor in such a tight-knit community is “amazing and rewarding.”

“In pretty short order, I’ve become a part of whole families,” she says. “I go to backyard barbecues and high school sports events and learn about people’s lives, their health struggles and successes.”

And the bigger picture for Bailey is that she can develop her practice into whatever she wants. Through her medical school experiences she realizes that she can focus on health issues she finds particularly compelling, like women’s health and pediatrics, as well as chronic diseases, like heart disease and cancer.

Bailey confesses that before her experience in Santa Rosa, she didn’t pay a lot of attention to small-town medicine.

“I thought it might be very constricting,” she says. “But a rural family physician does so much.”

For communities like Santa Rosa, UNM mentorship programs mean better access to healthcare, says Brown, who has been able to recruit nurse practitioners, physician assistants and doctors to his own clinic.

“That’s big in a community where as few as five years ago, if I was hit by lightning, the clinic would go away and the community would have no health care resources,” Brown says. “Now, with five docs and seven midlevel providers, the clinic’s patient load and quality of care have stabilized.”

Framing their future
“Brian and Cassie have a great future in New Mexico,” Brown continues. “They both have big smiles and gentle spirits that our patients love.”

Already they’re able to put folks at ease, and the community thinks of them as its doctors, he adds. Meanwhile they’re becoming more confident in their knowledge base, while expanding their experiences and learning more about their patients.

“I love to see them getting excited about practicing here,” Brown says. “I’m an educator – always have been – so I push their knowledge and can see them energize. They’re up to the challenge.”

It’s a challenge that Lopez and Bailey hope will open a new door of opportunity in eastern New Mexico; one that will mean greater access to healthcare and contribute to a strong community.

“Cassie and I plan to practice family medicine in the Tucumcari area where I grew up,” Lopez says. “We want a life together where, at the end of the day, we get to be part of something bigger.”