An audience cheered the first 60 Washington State University members of the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine in August 2017. The future doctors in its inaugural class were cloaked in white coats during a ceremony at Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.
This May – likely absent a gathering – WSU will graduate that first class of new MDs who then disperse to residency programs in this state and across the U.S. After an average of five years or so in that training, the hope is they’ll return to this state to practice medicine.
Among them is Phoebe Tham, 29, who today can look from her downtown Spokane condo and see the theater where their collective journey began.
“A little over 3 ½ years ago now, we were all in the theater here for our white coat ceremony taking our oath before starting medical school,” Tham said. “The time has just flown by.”
At that ceremony, the class also heard from Carmento Floyd, widow of the former WSU president for whom the medical school is named. She told them, “You are and will be the most important class because you were first.” That message has never been lost, Tham said.
“We’re all pretty close. I consider everyone a great classmate, a great friend and, really, a lifelong colleague. It’s a very supportive group.
“We all are part of this first class, and I think there is some pride in that and some pride in knowing we have a part in shaping what the future of the college of medicine looks like. I think we’ve all just embraced that opportunity whether that’s working together, learning well and working well with the medical communities that we’re in.”
“We’ve also had the privilege of kind of shaping what we want our legacy to be, to make improvements for future classes. To be able to work closely with the faculty and the community physicians has been a real privilege and something that I knew I would get as being part of the first class but didn’t have the appreciation yet that I do now.”
Tham has a goal to become an anesthesiologist, so she’s applied to training programs that include two in the state, through the University of Washington as well as Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle. Another regional option is through Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.
On March 19, called “match day” among medical school graduates, she and others learn of their residency and fellowship training positions in the National Resident Matching Program. She’s keeping her fingers crossed that it will be a Northwest program, but, “it could be anywhere.”
Tham wants eventually to be in Washington either way.
When selected, all 60 of the medical students came from somewhere in the state, a move that college administrators said was purposeful to make a dent toward filling in future physician needs – particularly for medically underserved areas.
“That is one of the coolest things about being in this class is that I know in another four, five or six years, whenever we’re all done training, I would say most of the people I know have the goals of coming back to serve and be a physician in the state,” Tham said.
“Even though we are going into all different specialties whether that be surgery, family medicine or anesthesiology, just the thought that we’ll all be back one day is really neat. I could be the anesthesiologist for one of my classmates who might be the surgeon.”
There were a few bumps as the first class, she said, such as unknowns early on about what clinical rotations would look like, and they couldn’t ask questions of an upper class of medical students.
But they instead received an abundance of support, she said, from Spokane’s medical doctors going all out to mentor and train this first WSU group.
“I think one of the things that’s very much stood out to me is just how incredible the medical community in Spokane is. One of the things that I’m most thankful for – having the opportunity to do the clinicals here – is just to see how much the doctors care for the patients and also how much they’re invested in training us as medical students.
“We don’t have a class above us being the first class, and I’ve been able to find mentors and physicians who are so committed to our medical school journey. These are relationships that I very much treasure.”
While she considers Washington home now, Tham has lived in three countries.
Her journey to WSU began with a childhood in Singapore, where she was born, until moving to Canada with her family at age 10. Tham later made Washington her permanent home moving to Seattle just before entering the University of Washington on a gymnastics scholarship.
Her mother studied in the U.S. for college, she said, and wanted to move Tham and her younger brother here. Tham’s mom, brother and stepdad now also live in the state.
Tham completed a biology major, then worked two years for a Seattle-area pain management practice, where she decided to pursue medicine. The clinic introduced her to working in clinical research and helping to take care of patients.
When applying to schools, it was the year that WSU had opened its medical college applications, and Tham wanted to stay in-state.
During their first two years here in Spokane, many of the medical students bonded over playing basketball, she said. Tham also joined classmates in forming Spokane Hoopfest teams.
Another favorite part of being here, Tham said, was enjoying the Spokane food scene and trying different restaurants as they opened.
For the third- and fourth-year training, she and classmates had opportunities at all regional hospitals, “Sacred Heart, Deaconess and the VA … doing some of our core rotations and then our specialty rotations all with the community physicians, for me, here in Spokane.”
When she completes her anesthesiology residency training, Tham said that where in the state she ends up will depend on work opportunities. Some of her classmates have mentioned their plans to return to rural hometowns.
“I know of some classmates who were born and raised in a more rural community in Washington and have full intentions of returning back there to provide health care for their communities,” she said.
She and classmates also enjoyed watching as other classes of medical students arrived at WSU, she said. They’ve been able to do some mentoring for them as members of the first class.
“I feel so fortunate and blessed to be in the position I am, that WSU opened the school to train new medical students and how grateful I am for the community physicians who have been willing to teach us and mentor us through becoming doctors.”
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