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For these UW medical students Gonzaga is home, too

Members of the first UW medicine class taught at Gonzaga – from left, Justin Thompson, Bella Dahlgren and Jason Dixon – talk about graduating to clerkships at Gonzaga University’s Schoenberg Center on Monday, Dec. 11, 2017. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Members of the first UW medicine class taught at Gonzaga – from left, Justin Thompson, Bella Dahlgren and Jason Dixon – talk about graduating to clerkships at Gonzaga University’s Schoenberg Center on Monday, Dec. 11, 2017. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Bella Dahlgren grew up in Western Washington and liked the idea of living in the big city for medical school.

But when she applied to the University of Washington School of Medicine, she was given the same choice every student gets: be part of a cohort of 100 students on the bustling Seattle campus, or take classes with a smaller group of 60 UW medical students on the Gonzaga University campus.

Dahlgren ended up choosing Spokane.

“They have this amazingly supportive community here,” she said.

Her class is finishing the first chapter of medical school this week, graduating from the year and a half of foundational classes in anatomy and pathology that start every doctor’s training.

Many will go on to focus on rural medicine, serving communities across Washington that badly need doctors.

The Washington Department of Health classifies much of Eastern Washington as “medically under-served” based on the number of doctors relative to the number of elderly residents and infant mortality rates. Those counties include Pend Oreille and Ferry, as well as much of Stevens.

UW’s medical students used to be housed on the Washington State University campus, but that relationship ended when WSU decided to pursue its own medical school.

This class is the first from UW to finish their studies on the Gonzaga campus, though they still share an anatomy lab with the WSU medical school.

With the shift, medical students get to be Bulldogs and Huskies. They’re issued two student ID cards and get the perks of other graduate students at Gonzaga.

The new home has contributed to a tight-knit feeling between class members.

Justin Thompson, a medical student, said the class is made up of people who are willing to help and support classmates, even when it might mean less time for studying.

To him, it’s reflective of a team-based approach to medical care that he thinks will benefit patients.

“To me, that is what health care needs: someone’s who’s willing to ask one more question that might prevent a medication error,” Thompson said.

Medical school is typically a four-year program followed by a residency. Students spend the first 18 months to two years learning in the classroom while spending time in clinics and hospitals shadowing doctors in various specialties.

Years three and four are a series of hands-on placements with different health care providers called clerkships, the final step before prospective doctors apply for residency slots.

Ten of the students are enrolled in a program specifically focused on rural health. Thompson, who came to medical school after finishing his Army service at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma, is one of them.

He’s been spending his clinical time in Moses Lake and plans to continue working there for his clerkship, learning from a number of different specialists in the same area over a five-month period.

At least one member of the class was born and raised in Spokane County. Jason Dixon was born at Holy Family Hospital to working-class parents who hadn’t gone to college. His mother’s parents were dairy farmers, and his father’s ran an upholstery business.

He got his associate’s degree the same day his mother got her first college degree as a physical therapy assistant.

He majored in biology and minored in chemistry at Eastern Washington University, completing the university’s pre-med track. His first round of medical school application wasn’t successful, so he took a job at Kaiser Aluminum. That lasted four and a half years.

“I decided that it was time to give it another shot,” he said. His medical school application was successful, and he took his place in the 2020 class. Though he’s 29 and married with a child, he said he doesn’t feel out of place. Many of his classmates took less-than-direct paths to medical school rather than going straight there from college.

Dixon, like many of his classmates, wants to continue practicing in Eastern Washington. His clinical experience has been in Newport, and he’ll continue his clerkship there on a rural medicine track.

The students said in the past, many UW medical classses were full of people who wanted to stay in Seattle. But that’s shifting now, as many see the benefits of learning in a smaller community.

“There’s a solid group of students who don’t want to ever leave,” Thompson said.

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