September 11, 2000
Volume XXXIII, No. 33

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RAHC groundbreaking celebrated Olympic-style

Photos by Fernando Serna
U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison presents a medal to Christopher Saenz, a Med/Ed student.

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison presents a medal to Christopher Saenz, a Med/Ed student.

There were no bulldozers, shiny shovels or hard hats Aug. 28 at the Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC) groundbreaking ceremony in Harlingen. Not a single mound of dirt was turned over in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

But that didn’t deter top legislative leaders from near and far, U. T. System officers, Health Science Center officials and the RAHC’s partners—Valley Baptist Medical Center, Su Clínica Familiar of Harlingen and the South Texas community—from celebrating this expansion of the Medical School into South Texas. The much-anticipated Medical Education Division, to be operated by the Health Science Center, will be the first of three RAHC divisions constructed, with projected completion scheduled for mid-2002.

"We’re not going to celebrate today’s groundbreaking with shovels but with a special presentation of students from the Valley who represent the Valley’s hope," said Dr. Leonel Vela. "They have excelled academically and are pursuing careers in medicine and health through the Med/Ed program. We are making them honorary ambassadors of the RAHC."

Olympic-style medals were presented to 10 Valley students selected from the Med/Ed program, a mentoring program in the Valley that encourages students interested in health careers. Doing the honors were: U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison; Lt. Gov. Rick Perry; State Sens. Eddie Lucio, Jr., Carlos Truan and Judith Zaffirini (sponsors/authors of the bill that created the RAHC); State Rep. Juan Hinojosa (sponsor of the companion House bill); Dan Burck, U. T. System chancellor; Dr. Elena Marin, Su Clínica Familiar executive director; and Dr. Juan Villarreal, Harlingen Economic Development Corp. CEO.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio, sponsor of the bill that created the RAHC, poses with Vanessa Cobarrubias during the RAHC symbolic groundbreaking ceremony Aug. 28.

Tony Sanchez, Jr., U. T. Regent; Dr. Charles B. Mullins, U. T. System executive vice chancellor for health affairs; Connie de la Garza, Harlingen mayor; Anne Shepard, Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce CEO; and Ben McKibbens, Valley Baptist Medical Center president and CEO, helped present the medals.

"Today, we celebrate a historic groundbreaking for a new medical education facility that will soon provide young people tremendous educational opportunities," said Dr. John P. Howe, III, Health Science Center president. "Today, the Valley’s future begins anew, starting here with the Regional Academic Health Center."

Dr. Howe, reading from a letter by Gov. George W. Bush, said, "Texas depends on health science centers to provide training for physicians, nurses and other medical professionals. I commend you for your commitment to providing quality health care for the residents of South Texas. Your efforts contribute to the vitality and well-being of the Valley region and the Lone Star State."

About 300 guests attended the symbolic groundbreaking ceremony, held under a large tent adjacent to Valley Baptist Medical Center and the RAHC site. The three-story, $25 million Medical Education Division will contain 94,000 square feet.

"A vision is the ability to see that which is invisible; this (the RAHC) is a step in the right direction," said Lt. Gov. Perry, who continued his message in Spanish. "Juntos podemos. Together we can have adequate, appropriate health care."

The RAHC is to be built on 26.2 acres adjacent to Valley Baptist. The Medical Education Division will coordinate residency rotations for physicians in training and clinical rotations for 24 third-year medical students and 24 fourth-year students. The inaugural group of RAHC medical students will start July 2002.

"This school is an essential part of the partnership. We are going to try to get more federal dollars to improve the quality of higher education here in South Texas," said Sen. Hutchison, who acknowledged the Valley region’s disproportionate disease rates. "I don’t want there to be a high rate of tuberculosis (in the border area). If we don’t catch these diseases early they will be passed on."

In addition to being able to focus more research on the diseases, such as dengue fever, that plague South Texas, the RAHC is expected to attract more health care professionals to the Valley and to help with their retention.

Lt. Gov. Rick Perry congratulates Natasha Subedar and her sister, Maura

Lt. Gov. Rick Perry congratulates Natasha Subedar (right) and her sister, Maura, after both Med/Ed students were named "Honorary Ambassadors" of the RAHC.

"The RAHC medical students will receive a high-quality medical education that will serve them very well in their chosen profession," said Dr. Vela, who will lead the Medical Education Division and the Medical Research Division, adjacent to U. T.-Pan American in Edinburg. A third division, the RAHC Public Health Division, will be built in Brownsville and operated by the U. T.-Houston Health Science Center. "The RAHC brings hope for the future by expanding research opportunities to students."

The RAHC’s Medical Education Division building design includes an auditorium and state-of-the-art library, teaching rooms, clinical simulation centers, clinical assessment areas and faculty office space. The library will be linked to the Health Science Center’s Dolph Briscoe, Jr., Library and will share access to its library reference search engines. The Health Science Center will award the M.D. degree to medical students studying at the RAHC.

Valley Baptist will be the principal inpatient-training hospital and Su Clínica the principal outpatient-training clinic.

"Students have been very enthusiastic about their experiences with rotations in Harlingen," said Dr. Vela, referring to the Health Science Center medical students currently doing clinical rotations in pediatrics, internal medicine and family practice at these various sites. Medical student rotations in obstetrics and gynecology, surgery and psychiatry are planned to begin soon. Post-graduate medical training in internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology and pediatrics will take place at Valley Baptist.

"Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reports evidence of higher performance in patient care for teaching hospitals," said Valley Baptist Health System president and CEO Ben M. McKibbens, FACHE, on Valley Baptist being chosen as the principal teaching hospital for RAHC. "This exemplifies the level of care Valley Baptist provides patients and the level of experience we are able to provide for the residents and medical students."

Sen. Lucio spoke of a dilemma affecting seniors and those who can’t afford proper medications.

"Not too long ago, my father went to take care of a prescription. I told the doctor, ‘I’ll take care of those; I’ll pay for them (the pills).’ He said, ‘Sir, you can’t afford them—the cost is $300 for what your father needs,’" said Sen. Lucio, who rallied support from members of the Texas Senate and acquired more than $30 million in RAHC appropriations. "I asked, ‘Doctor, what happens to people who can’t afford their medicine?’ He looked at me with a sad face and said, ‘Senator, they simply die.’ No one in our country should have to die just because he or she cannot afford to live."

In the RAHC, Dr. Vela and his colleagues see a solution for training,
as well as retaining, physicians and researchers to help curtail dilemmas that affect South Texas.

(For more RAHC information, visit the RAHC Web site on the Internet.)

— Fernando Serna and Will Sansom