Spring/Summer 2018
Labor of Love

synapse: University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine

Baby Phares being lifted into the air

The Dec. 7, 2017 birth of Hudson James Phares was celebrated by his family, as well as members of the School of Medicine family. Photo by David Calvert.

UNR Med student creates a family within a family

Story by Jessica Santina

For aspiring physicians, medical school and residency may be some of the most difficult times they've ever faced. However, most of them will tell you it's a labor of love - not only because they are rewarded with the satisfaction of practicing medicine, but also because they grow to love their fellow students, professors, administrators and attending physicians along the way.

But on Dec. 7, 2017, former nurse and current third-year medical student Crystal Phares and her wife, Megan, experienced another labor of love - the birth of their first child.

As she stood in a hospital room, in the midst of the chaos that comes with childbirth, a calming realization dawned on Crystal: She and Megan were literally surrounded by colleagues-turned-family from the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, a place that has come to feel like a second home over the last three years. Now they were creating a family while among family, and they couldn't have felt more comforted or cared for.

Not that things were going entirely smoothly. The baby was in breech position, and Megan's obstetrician, Nicholas Garol, M.D. '10 was hard at work trying to turn him for safe delivery. Garol, a UNR Med graduate, was assisted by Susan Hsu, M.D. '95, an OB/GYN specialist and School of Medicine graduate. And holding Megan's hand was Jane Stevens, Crystal's best friend, a fellow third-year medical student and former nurse who coincidentally happened to be working that day on her obstetrics labor and delivery rotation.

"They spent about 45 minutes trying to flip the baby, and he wouldn't go," Crystal said. "Jane was there, holding Megan's hand, encouraging her. And when they said they'd have to do a C-section, everybody knew there was a student with us and that we knew her, so she got to be there for the whole delivery."

Megan was wheeled into surgery, and soon Hudson James Phares was born.

"It was such a cool experience because Jane and I are really close, and I never would have expected that she'd get to be with us. She got to hold him right after he was born, and she took the first picture of the three of us together as a family," Crystal said.

"It was a privilege to be there and witness their family come together," Stevens said.

A Family Affair

Like Crystal, Jane Stevens feels like she's among family with her medical school class of 70 - which, she adds, is considerably smaller than many other programs. In fact, she likens the experience of being a medical student to soldiers serving on the front lines.

"The first two years are so intense," Stevens said. "You're in class so much, and you spend more time with these people than you do your own family. From there you get thrown into the same experiences, stressful and otherwise, so you have a lot in common to draw from. You look next to you and someone else is going through it too."

Crystal agrees. In fact, UNR Med's intentionally small class sizes and resulting familial environment were the biggest draw for her in selecting a medical school program. From the start, she has felt at home with this small, tight-knit group of medical students.

"Med school is a hard thing, and really only the people who are in it with you understand," Crystal said. "We're a group of people who are naturally competitive, otherwise we never would have gotten here. But everybody helps each other out; everyone's very encouraging, happy for each other and wants you to succeed. It's a team effort."

In fact, she said, this extends to faculty and staff as well. "I completed a project last year that was a student initiative, and the faculty and staff were amazing. Everyone got involved, and they were willing to help in any way they could. And when the project came to be, everyone participated; it wasn't just students, it was community faculty, administrators, leadership. It was a great experience to see everybody come together. It really is like a family, all of it. Everyone has a hand in growing us as doctors, even if they aren't physicians themselves."

"I'm surprised by how close I feel to most of the people in my class," Stevens said. "It's kind of cool that these people who are very different from you, who you probably wouldn't be friends with otherwise, are all in the same boat, and you become good friends with them."

Family Tree's Roots Run Deep

It didn't take long after Hudson's birth for the Phareses to realize that the UNR Med family tree extended beyond the delivery room to all the people who played a role in the process of helping them have a child.

First, there was Scott Whitten, M.D. '99, a specialist in reproductive endocrinology and infertility with the Nevada Center for Reproductive Medicine in Reno, who harvested both women's eggs in preparation for in vitro fertilization.

"I've had several medical students as patients, both undergrads and graduates, and I always feel like they're part of my medical family, going through the same things I went through many years ago, and we relate on that level," Whitten said. "It's very common in this community to have that shared family with shared background."

In addition to that bond, Whitten had an innate sense that the Phareses would make wonderful parents, and he was thrilled to have helped make it happen.

"We take the philosophy that if someone wants to parent a child, we help them do that," Whitten said. "I think the world needs to open its eyes a bit to diverse parenting. We're thrilled for Crystal and Megan and others who have had such success as theirs."

"I've had several medical students as patients, both undergrads and graduates, and I always feel like they're part of my medical family, going through the same things I went through many years ago, and we relate on that level," Whitten said. "It's very common in this community to have that shared family with shared background." – Scott Whitten, M.D. '99

Whitten attended the University of Nevada, Reno for his bachelor's and medical degrees, and he recalls his experiences with great affection. "I've been in Reno since 1976. It's where I grew up, so I already had great sense of community in this area," he said. "Attending the University as an undergraduate, it was such a small school when I was there that I really got to know my professors well and saw people I knew a lot on campus, so there was a sense of community and involvement. And I think that also helped me getting into med school because I did interact with alumni - I knew this was where I wanted to be long term and that they'd help me along in the process."

Whitten also believes that this family feeling extended to his time at UNR Med and contributed to his career success as a practicing physician.

"I recognize the great medical community we have here, and it's very tightly knit, which is different from other communities," he said. "My class size was only 52, and we were pretty tight; we have a lot of reunions, and several of us have come back here to practice. I always wanted to come back, and I'm fortunate in my subspecialty that I was able to do so."

Garol, who delivered baby Hudson that day, had a similar feeling about the school that trained him for a successful career. In fact, his own sense of family associated with UNR Med is helped by the fact that his brother, Benjamin Garol, M.D. '10, a Reno anesthesiologist, attended medical school with him, and the two graduated from the same class. As if that weren't enough of a family connection, the Garols' anatomy professor had previously taught at the UCLA School of Dentistry - the same school their father, a local orthodontist, attended as a young man.

But even without these coincidental family connections, Garol felt a connectedness to his UNR Med class that he knows is unusual and special.

"You went into any of your classes and almost every one of the professors knew you by name," Garol recalled. "They were interested in making sure you were performing well and that you learned what they had to teach you, and they could address you personally to make sure that you were optimizing your learning. And it also made them approachable for any specific needs you had as a student. If you needed anatomy help, you could always approach one of them and find a wide-open door."

Hudson's pediatrician, Megan Dory, M.D. '11, is a specialist in pediatric sports medicine with Pediatric Associates in Reno. She, too, attended the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, and before that - another coincidental connection - she attended Reno High School with the Garol brothers. In fact, she had known four other UNR Med classmates since elementary school.

Though Dory completed her undergraduate education at Yale University and her pediatric residency and sports medicine fellowship in Portland, Oregon, she has always called Reno home. She attended UNR Med for medical school and returned to Reno after her residency and fellowship, even though a large percentage of physicians practice where they completed their graduate medical education. She also recalls her time at UNR Med with great fondness.

"When I was doing my rural rotation, I was in Incline Village, and I got to live with a professor up there who had a house. We just got a chance to have a more personal relationship with mentors and teachers, and I think we got to experience more because of that," Dory said.

She added that she liked how the UNR Med program enabled her to deepen connections through teaching; as a fourth-year student, she got the opportunity to teach first-year classes - in fact, one of her former students is also now a practicing pediatrician in Reno.

"In med school and in Reno in general, you always have a connection to people that isn't necessarily through medicine, and that helped deepen our connections," Dory said. "I also feel like the administration worked hard to help us students, maybe because there were fewer of us. They helped us to meet our goals and get us where we wanted to be."

Growing Up

Crystal and Megan are enjoying parenthood and the ongoing support they've received from their extended UNR Med family, from Stevens, who frequently babysits for little Hudson, to casual encounters with fellow students, professors and administrators. "Even today, I was on campus in the administrative office, and everybody was asking about Hudson by name," Crystal said. "It's kind of cool, you don't just feel like any student. Everybody's been wonderful."

She's looking forward to her fourth year and subsequently a residency in emergency medicine. Beyond that, Crystal hopes a career in emergency medicine will prepare her for the next stage of her life, which she believes will involve effecting healthcare policy changes in some way. Where they'll end up after graduation, Crystal doesn't yet know, but she says she and Megan are excited about what's next. And she'll always feel a sense of connectedness to the city of Reno and the University of Nevada, Reno, wherever she goes.

"In reality, med school is difficult. And you want all the support you can get. You want people to know you and how you're doing. Otherwise, it's going to be even harder," she said. "[Compared to others], this program is more of what I envisioned medicine being. It's more interactive. Yes, you spend a lot of time reading, but you can also gain access to clinical experience right out of the gate. If a student is looking for more than just research, I would encourage considering UNR Med. It is very much a community."

Stevens feels that the closeness UNR Med students enjoy with the professional medical community is unusual and certainly a major benefit for future physicians. "I think we're very tightly situated with the community. You really learn who the local physicians and specialists are early on. We get exposed to a lot of people who envelop us into that environment every day. It's a pretty close dynamic, so it's pretty perfect for a medical school."

However, Whitten insists that its size is no reflection on its quality. UNR Med is small but mighty, he said.

"I have to sometimes remind upcoming students of what great training you get here at the University and the School of Medicine, and that it can take you wherever you want to go," Whitten said. "People think, ‘Oh, it's just Nevada.' No. It's a great school, one that's very competitive nationally. I had no trouble going wherever I wanted to go. Sometimes local students have no context, and they wonder if they're getting great training at their local school. But when you start getting competitive with other students, you realize, yeah, you really are."