Husky 509

UW School of Medicine Spokane hosts reunion for 2008 first-year medical school students

Close-knit group of students and faculty gather at UW Spokane Center

By Cindy Hval

For 45 years, the University of Washington School of Medicine (UWSOM) has been an active part of the Eastern Washington community. It began in the early ’70’s with a first-year medical education site, involving the participation of Spokane physicians and support of the community.

Medical students in Spokane

In 2008, the first-year site, now called the Foundations Phase (the first 18 months of medical school) moved from Pullman to Spokane. The Foundations Phase integrates basic science and clinical education, as well as rural training early in the curriculum.

While the first class size in Spokane was small, the initial group of 20 first-year students formed tight bonds with each other and with the faculty. Recently, that bond was celebrated with a 10-year reunion at the UW Spokane Center.

“It’s great to reconnect with my classmates who made that first year so much better,” said organizer Rachel Safran, M.D., a full-time internal medicine residency physician in Spokane. “We were very lucky to have a small class with faculty who were so invested in us.”

The first year of medical school is rigorous and challenging — even for motivated, high-achieving students.

“It’s a challenging learning curve,” said 2008 first-year student Ben Arthurs, M.D., a pulmonary critical care physician in Spokane. “There’s a lot of testing and that’s intrinsically stressful. Everybody feels it. You spend a lot of time together. I still feel close to this first-year group.”

The class attended their second year at UWSOM in Seattle, and then moved throughout the WWAMI region (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho) to gain clinical experience through rotations. They managed to stay in touch through social media.

Making Eastern Washington home

Safran said the idea for the reunion blossomed when she realized many of her former classmates would be in and around Eastern Washington in early September. And many weren’t just visiting.

“It’s gratifying to see our graduates fulfilling our mission — to increase the physician workforce and impact the health of communities throughout Eastern Washington.”

“About one third of the class is now back working in Eastern Washington,” said Safran. “It’s such a supportive, happy place to work and learn.”

That includes Safran, who teaches full-time for the internal medicine residency in Spokane.

Originally from Salt Lake City, she didn’t know much about Spokane when she arrived for that first year, but she said, “I quickly fell in love with it.”

Arthurs, who also returned to practice in Spokane, moved home with his wife and four daughters. He’s enjoying the full circle of connectivity in medical education — one neighbor is a former instructor, and he recently hosted a medical student to shadow at his clinic.

“It’s amazing to see everybody,” said Liz Stuhlmiller, M.D., who works in family medicine at Confluence Health in tiny Tonasket, Washington.

She grew up in Reardon, Washington and knew she wanted to practice rural medicine.

Darryl Potyk, M.D., Chief of Medical Education for the UW School of Medicine-Gonzaga University Regional Health Partnership, and UWSOM Associate Dean for Eastern Washington, is delighted when former students return to the area.

“It’s gratifying to see our graduates fulfilling our mission — to increase the physician workforce and impact the health of communities throughout Eastern Washington,” he said.

At the reunion, a buzz of excited conversation filled the room. Visiting with former and current faculty members like Drs. Sam Palpant and John McCarthy was a highlight for the group.

Medical students reunion in Spokane

“I think the key to much of our success is that our students go through a very rigorous curriculum, and yet they’re happy because they are supported. At the same time, we work to make it fun and enjoyable,” Potyk said. “We are all in it together.”

Their instructors’ enthusiasm and passion for teaching and for medicine made a marked impact on this class.

“All the faculty involved was so excited to teach,” said 2008 first-year student Katie Wysham, M.D., a Spokane native whose parents are both physicians and teachers in Spokane.

From its early start with 20 students in 2008, the medical school has grown over the past decade. Today, the UWSOM-GU Regional Health Partnership teaches 60 first-year and 60 second-year students on the GU campus.

“More students than ever are choosing to study in Spokane, and the bonds they form are very deep,” said Potyk. “They love the community and the campus culture.”