In the early 1980s, Dan Truong left her native Vietnam as a refugee, one of the almost two million people seeking asylum who fled the humanitarian crisis in the country following the Vietnam War. More than three decades later, her dreams for prosperity and happiness for her family are coming full circle. Her granddaughter, Michelle Reyes, is a first-year medical student at the Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine.
Reyes’ path to medical school was a winding one. Growing up in California, she had dreams of being a physician, but she initially pushed those ambitions aside to start a family at the age of 23. Hoping to achieve the ideal work-family balance, she became a nurse practitioner. One of her first positions was at a private practice. “I didn’t really enjoy it,” she said. “It was more about pushing patient volume versus providing patient-centered care and being concerned with the quality of care.”
It wasn’t until she accepted a position at a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC)—and started working under a supportive and encouraging medical director—that Reyes found her true life’s work. “We had a lot of low-income patients with low levels of education,” she explained. “I really enjoyed working with underserved populations because I come from a family of immigrants myself. I found I enjoyed being a teacher for the patients and helping them navigate getting to a healthier place.”
Reyes said she discovered the importance of speaking to patients in terms they could understand and relate to, as opposed to using medical jargon. She began developing patient education materials and resources, many designed for illiterate patients. “My approach was giving them the big picture and why it’s important to take their medications and follow the physician’s recommendations. I started laying out the negative consequences of their health conditions, but in an empathetic way.”
Working for the FQHC, Reyes took on a leadership role in which she worked with an interdisciplinary team to streamline and improve access to diagnostic colonoscopies for patients requiring them in a timely manner. She developed a system that ultimately put the FQHC on the map as the go-to clinic for other facilities to refer patients for colonoscopies.
While she found the job rewarding, after three years at the FQHC, Reyes felt like something was missing. She said, “I just felt like I wasn’t happy because I wasn’t pursuing what I really wanted to do, which is taking care of patients on a more comprehensive level with the knowledge of a physician.”
Now a mother of three young children—Elle, Emma, and Max—and wife to a husband with a career of his own, Reyes said she felt selfish when she first contemplated quitting her job and uprooting the family for her to attend medical school. She credits her husband with encouraging her to “go for it” and said it ended up being the best decision she could have made. “I feel like I’m a better wife and mother now because I’m so much happier pursuing my passions,” she noted. “Plus, I’m setting an example for my kids to go for what they want because life’s too short not to.”
As a nurse practitioner, Reyes was mentored by an osteopathic physician who familiarized her with the osteopathic philosophy of treating patients as a whole and as a person. The concept resonated with her and she began looking into osteopathic medical colleges. When she came upon BCOM’s mission, she knew she had found her match. “It was pretty much in direct alignment with what I was doing and what I want to do. That idea of serving the underserved with cultural awareness and empathy felt like the right fit,” she said.
Reyes hasn’t regretted her decision for a minute. Not only has her daily commute dropped from almost an hour-and-a-half to five minutes, she and her family are enjoying the culture, the food, and the spectacular sunsets in the Mesilla Valley. At BCOM, she has found staff and faculty who “are truly invested in our success and it shows. I’m not just somebody on a roster; there’s a more personal connection. I met Dr. Morehead, just once and every time I see him he remembers my name.” She said she also appreciates Dean Mychaskiw’s emails familiarizing the student body with the local cultures and ethnicities.
In the future, Reyes sees herself working as a primary care physician in a community health clinic similar to the FQHC she worked for in California. She plans to focus on community education and preventative medicine and she feels that she can make more of an impact in a tight-knit community like Las Cruces, as opposed to a bigger city with a more dense population. It is an inspiring goal for Reyes who was the first person in her family to graduate from college, let alone go to medical school. She said, “This is what my grandma came here for. To give me that opportunity. That means a lot to me.”