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Harlingen to graduate its first medical residents (6/22/98)

Harlingen will have a proud moment in June when four doctors become the first to graduate from its new medical residency program at Valley Baptist Medical Center.

"We've all had an adventure building this program from the ground up," said Bruce Leibert, MD, director of the family practice residency program. A graduation dinner is scheduled for June 27.

Established in 1996 with The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, the program operates in a 13,189-square-foot clinic and headquarters built by Valley Baptist, and its staff treats 12,000 patients a year. Support also comes from the South Texas/Border Region Health Education Initiative, a legislative program to expand health professional education in the Rio Grande Valley.

Harlingen's residency is the newest of four family-practice programs in far South Texas. McAllen has one program, and Corpus Christi has two.

"Our graduating residents have been great ambassadors for family medicine and for our program. They have gone into the community by participating in health fairs, talks at local schools, PTAs, and mobile home parks and free clinics at area colonias. Their responsibilities expose them to many people and they become part of the community's medical team," Dr. Leibert said.

Medical school graduates must complete three years of residency training before they begin independent practice. Training concentrates on clinical casework under the supervision of licensed faculty physicians.

The first graduating residents already had completed their first year of residency when they joined the Harlingen program. Since then, the program has accepted 12 medical school graduates to fulfill their first, second and third years of training in Harlingen.

Graduating residents say they joined the program for a variety of reasons: a desire to practice in the Rio Grande Valley, professional respect for the staff, and a belief in Christian values in healing.

Harlingen's program is one of only a few medical residencies in the United States that stress spiritual as well as scientific and medical aspects of treatment. The residents and faculty, for example, make missionary visits to colonias in Mexico to treat chronic and acute diseases, teach preventive health, and pray with patients who request prayer.

"The Christian message gives people hope, and helps them lift themselves out of disease, poverty and harmful chronic habits," said Edward G. Oorjitham, MD, a graduating resident.

Young doctors sometimes are reluctant to join a new and unproven residency program. Graduating resident Thomas J. Huff, DO, who switched from a residency program in internal medicine two years ago, said he took an immediate liking to Dr. Leibert, and applied to Harlingen. "He was dynamic, gung-ho, and a straight shooter. If I had to take a risk with anyone, I decided I'd take it with him. He didn't let us down, and the hospital backed us up in every way," Dr. Huff said.

His classmate, Charles W. Webb, DO, expressed pride in the founding work of the residents, instructors and staff. "We pioneered a residency program at a hospital that had never had one, and we worked with attending physicians who hadn't been residents for 10 or 15 years or more. We all learned something new," Dr. Webb said.

Residency programs are important because they give young doctors intense exposure to clinical work, and the chance to learn about its community and people. In South Texas, the goal is to attract more primary care physicians to a region that has fewer family doctors than the national average.

A majority of residency graduates usually choose to stay and practice in or near the community. The McAllen family practice residency, for example, has graduated 85 residents since 1977, and more than 70 percent practice in the Valley.

These doctors are graduating:

  • Willard H. Howard III, DO, will become director of the emergency department at Dolly Vinsant Memorial Hospital in San Benito. He said his residency experience was rewarding. "It was great being part of the pioneering spirit of starting the new program," Dr. Howard said. He and his wife and two children live in San Benito so he is looking forward to his new practice. "I'll be less than a half mile from home so I won't be far from my family, even at work."
  • Dr. Huff, a graduate of the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth, plans to practice in Harlingen. He gives the residency high marks and says it invigorates the medical community. "Having an academic focus on medicine is good for our community. We keep the spirit of learning high among everyone who is involved," Dr. Huff said.
  • Dr. Oorjitham, a graduate of the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine in Oklahoma City, plans to practice in the Rio Grande Valley.
  • Dr. Webb, a graduate of the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth, will enter the Army and practice at Fort Sill, Okla. He hopes to pursue further training in sports medicine. Dr. Webb created the Harlingen family practice program's sports medicine component. Residents rotate as attending team physicians for interscholastic athletic events at San Benito, and at the home games of the Rio Grande Valley White Wings minor-league baseball team.

Contact: Jim Barrett, (210) 567-2570