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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Homecoming for health care: UW School of Medicine graduate Mara Hazeltine finds her way back to Sacred Heart for residency

Mara Hazeltine, a University of Washington Medical School graduate, began her residency at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center this year. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
By Arielle Dreher The Spokesman-Review

Mara Hazeltine is no stranger to the halls of Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center.

She grew up coming to Sacred Heart with her mother, a nurse for more than 30 years who recently retired.

Now she returns on her own to begin her residency in family medicine after graduating from the University of Washington School of Medicine.

“This place feels like home to me,” she said, noting she still runs into some of her mother’s nursing friends, her “aunties,” in the hallways today.

Hazeltine grew up in the Green Bluff area and graduated from Mt. Spokane High School in 2007. Four years later, she had earned a degree in psychology.

For Hazeltine, the road to becoming a doctor started in the classroom. The daughter of a teacher and a nurse, she decided to teach after graduation through Teach for America. She taught middle school math in Colorado Springs, an experience she believes was one of the most important things she has ever done.

“I think you really start to understand the underpinnings of poverty when you are immersed in that community,” she said. “ … The thing I learned though through that process is that health, really, is a foundation to be able to learn, and so they kind of go hand in hand.”

Hazeltine recalled one of her students who kept his head down on his desk for most of class. She kept coming back to him, trying to figure out what was wrong. When he finally showed her his mouth, full of holes and blackened teeth, she understood: He was in a lot of pain.

“Understanding that family dynamic is huge, like where are they living, what does that house look like, are there environmental exposures going on? Do they have access to food? And how far away is it from the grocery store?” she said. “Are they going to school on a regular basis? Do they have clothes to wear to school? Do they have somewhere to wash them? Those are all things that impact your health in immense ways, so I think family docs tend to have that higher perspective, and they put it into context.”

Her experience in Colorado became the catalyst for her to apply to medical school. She applied to the UW medical school, and when she was accepted, chose to attend classes in Spokane.

This meant that Hazeltine got to come home for medical school, as well as getting experience outside of Spokane County.

She delivered her first baby during her first year of medical school in Tonasket, Washington, during her time in the Rural Underserved Opportunities Program. Hazeltine met the patient earlier that day, and in the middle of the night, she woke up with the doctor she was working and staying with to go deliver the baby.

“I don’t know anywhere else where you can deliver a baby as a first-year student, and you only do that somewhere rural, too,” she said.

While in medical school, Hazeltine served as president of her student medical association, advocating for students’ needs in the midst of a transition to a new curriculum. UW’s medical school in Spokane began its regional health partnership with Gonzaga in 2016. She established a program for students to express concerns and offer suggestions without fear of retribution in closed-to-faculty meetings lovingly dubbed fireside chats. That tradition outlived Hazeltine’s class and it became a best practice, faculty members said.

Hazeltine also started the UW Medical Students for Educational Equity program, a service-learning program that provides medical students at the Spokane campus opportunities to get involved with local schools through tutoring, the walking school bus program or helping with robotics programs and overnight camps. Getting involved with the local community parallels how Hazeltine views her work as a doctor.

“I think getting to know people is the real basis of being a good doctor, getting that narrative is so important, and then you learn things through that that really help you to practice good medicine,” she said.

Hazeltine, now 30, graduated in May in Seattle with other UW medical students, including 34 who were based in Spokane.

All medical school students go through a match process that pairs students with residency programs, usually in the specialty or area of medicine they choose, from pulmonary disease to dermatology to family medicine. Students participate in several two-way interviews during which the residency program and students interview each other to gauge if the arrangement would be a good fit. After interviews, students rank the programs, with their favorites at the top. Residency program directors do the same. Then on a Friday in March, all medical students in the country open their envelopes at the same time.

Hazeltine had an intimate match day, with five other medical students in Spokane along with faculty and family members around her as she opened her envelope at exactly 9 a.m.

With her husband, Chris Jordan, and both their families there, Hazeltine opened her envelope, scanning the letter, which doesn’t make the placement obvious.

Her family could hardly contain their excitement. “What does it say?” they asked. When she finally saw the words “Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center,” Hazeltine was not surprised at her placement.

“I had a good feeling about it. I had a good vibe at my interview,” she said.

John McCarthy, assistant dean for rural programs at the UW medical school, worked with Hazeltine and said she will make the Spokane family medicine residency much more competitive.

“If you have good residents, you become more competitive, and if you have poor residents, you become less competitive,” McCarthy said.

While Hazeltine was confident about match day, her husband was nervous. Sacred Heart is the only family medicine residency in Spokane, so if Mara had matched into another program, they would have had to leave Spokane.

Residencies, the key to a doctor’s future certification and matriculation into the workforce, are available in four specialties in the Spokane area: family medicine, internal medicine, psychiatry and radiology. Students from Spokane who are going into other specialties, such as pediatrics or obstetrics and gynecology, must serve their residency elsewhere.

Residencies are just one piece of the physician-shortage puzzle that Washington state and the nation as a whole is working to solve. For researchers and medical school experts, residencies are usually a good indicator of where a physician will end up working. A 2013 study found that more than half of family medicine doctors are likely to practice medicine within 100 miles of where they completed their residency.

“Oftentimes, people settle in the communities where they do residency training. She (Mara) will probably stay in Spokane or stay in Eastern Washington because she’s training here,” said Bill Sayres, assistant dean of foundations at the UW medical school.

The latest data from the Association of American Medical Colleges show about 33 percent of active physicians in Washington completed their graduate medical education in the state.

Last year, no UW medical school graduates entered family medicine residencies in Spokane. There are four this year. The family medicine residency at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center currently has 27 residents overall, and Hazeltine’s class has a total of 10 residents. Mentors and UW faculty speak highly of Hazeltine and agree she could have gone anywhere for her residency.

“She could have gone anywhere she wanted, but she’s made of the kind of stuff that would allow her to take on the world,” McCarthy said. “And I’m convinced that she will, and that she will make this a better medical community just because she’s here.”

Returning home was a choice, however, and Hazeltine believes that not only is Spokane home for her, but that the need for doctors, particularly in the rural areas parts of Eastern Washington, is great.

When she returned home, Hazeltine called her own primary care doctor for an appointment.

“They were booked out for five months, and that’s just not right,” she said. “We need more people in this area, and it’s a fun place to live.”