By Denise Getson
There was a time when children grew up to follow in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents. A farmer’s son became a farmer. A grocer’s son became a grocer.
Each new generation apprenticed in the family business from an early age. However, beginning with the Boomer generation, children increasingly determined to follow their own paths. And perhaps no generation is as independent as today’s millennial generation.
Still, for some, the family business represents the most promising direction for a career; for a life.
When the family business is family medicine, the period of apprenticeship can feel long and drawn out. For two new physicians born and raised in southern West Virginia, the destination is definitely worth the arduous journey.
Such is the case for Kyle Muscari of Pineville, who graduated May 25, from the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine (WVSOM).
In today’s health care landscape, with the challenges of the Affordable Care Act, troubling health care inefficiencies, skyrocketing rates of chronic disease, along with the skyrocketing costs that accompany them, it is an act of extreme courage to decide to become a doctor.
While many of today’s physicians would never in a million years recommend a career in medicine to their children, Muscari grew up with constant affirmations about the value of healing, the importance of connecting to one’s patients and the satisfaction derived from a life lived in the service of others.
“My grandfather is a doctor. My father is a doctor,” said Muscari. “My cousin, Nick, graduated from medical school in 2011 and another cousin graduates next year. I consider it an honor to live up to the tradition and to follow in the footsteps of my father and grandfather.”
It’s not just a career in medicine which Muscari plans to emulate, but specifically a career in rural family medicine. He explained.
“My grandfather loved practicing medicine. I think he always hoped I’d be a doctor, but no one ever pushed me. My family wanted me to be happy. But I’ve seen how fulfilled my father and grandfather are by practicing in a small community, treating friends and family and seeing generations of neighbors grow up in front of their eyes.”
Starting July 1, Muscari will begin his residency in family medicine at AccessHealth Teaching Health Center in Beckley. He’s excited to be finished with medical school and begin practicing.
“My parents always stressed the value of education,” Muscari explained. “But there is a purpose to that education. Now I can finally start giving back and doing the work I’ve been trained to do.”
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Another new resident beginning July 1 at AcessHealth is Kelly Lopez of Rainelle. She walked across the WVSOM stage to accept her diploma 35 years after her father, David Allen, became the very first medical student at WVSOM to accept the degree of Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine.
Like her classmate Muscari, she is proud to be following in her father’s footsteps. “I’m aware that I have really big shoes to fill,” Lopez said. “Graduating from the school where my dad was the first graduate — that’s a big deal for me.”
She hopes to work with her father one day and already understands the rigors and realities of rural primary care.
“I worked in my dad’s clinic off and on for 10 years,” said Lopez. “I know his patients. I know this community. My heart is here. I cannot wait to practice in my home town.”
She shared an anecdote from the graduation weekend festivities which helped prepare her for what’s to come.
“I was talking with my dad and I said now that I was graduating from medical school, I could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. My dad immediately pointed out that the light I was seeing was an oncoming train! He reminded me that my true education was still ahead of me — long days and tough cases so I know it’s not going to be easy, but I also know it’s going to be extremely rewarding.”
In addition to a hometown family practice, Lopez is proud of another way she’s giving back to her community.
“I began my military basic training in March 2000 and completed my security training on Aug. 11, 2001,” she said. “The 9/11 tragedy happened exactly one month later. I went on active duty for two years.”
To date, she’s spent 12 years with the National Guard and plans to use vacation time in the last year of her residency to complete officer training.
“During my medical practice, I’ll continue my monthly service to the Guard,” said Lopez. “It’s important to me.”
Tiffany Thymius, D.O., is the residency program director for AccessHealth. She explained what they’re looking for when considering a new physician for their residency program.
“We’re always looking for that well-qualified applicant who has a genuine interest in practicing primary care medicine in a rural area,” Thymius explained. “Both Kyle and Kelly grew up in small towns in southern West Virginia. So those ties are already there. We know if we train medical residents in a rural environment, they are more likely to practice in that environment when they complete their residency. These rural primary care physicians are absolutely critical for our state.”
Thymius agrees the next stage of their professional journey is going to be challenging but she’s confident the incoming medical residents are well-prepared for what’s ahead of them.
“I tell them ‘Don’t lose sight of why you started this process. We’re all here to take care of patients.’ I also advise them to stay connected with their family and friends. It will help balance the work load. Basically, do your best every day for yourself and for your patients.”
She continued, “AccessHealth Teaching Health Center is committed to nurturing local talent and keeping it in the area. These young doctors are going to benefit our entire community.”
As Muscari and Lopez walked across the graduation stage, both paused mid-way through, bent slightly and were “hooded’ by their fathers. It’s an emotional moment, when the new physician is anointed, so to speak, accepting the mantle of responsibility to care for others.
At the end of the ceremony, they stand with their class and recite the osteopathic oath. It includes the statement: “I will be ever vigilant in aiding in the general welfare of the community.”
“Community.” It is a word that crops up repeatedly among these new physicians. Muscari reflected on what this meant for him.
“I’m from a small town, a small county. We have no red light and no four-lane roads. Getting to the doctor can be a challenge for many — up in the mountains and back in the holler — but when you treat these patients you know absolutely that you’re making a difference.
“I want to know my patients, their families, their lives and the type of work they do. Some might see it as a challenging way to practice medicine, but I cannot imagine anything more rewarding.”
West Virginia is working hard to grow its own and to grow them right. When the family business is family medicine, an entire community reaps the harvest.