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Life of a Resident – Young Doctors Find a Lot to Learn at Southern Regional AHEC, a Center of Community Health Care

Dr. Nicole Shields has been married three years, but she has yet to live in the same city as her husband.

But even if they did, it’s not likely the two of them would see much of each other anyway. Such is the life of a medical resident.

Dr. Meredith Grey never had this problem – and believe it, she’s had her share. Like the docs on “Grey’s Anatomy,” these real-life physicians fresh out of medical school come to Fayetteville for residency, a three-year stint of learning, hard labor and long hours. Shields just began her first year. Doctors like Heather Brown are in their final year, the end of a long road.

“I’ve really grown,” Brown said. “I can really do this on my own. People entrust you with so much …. If somebody comes through the door, and they’re falling apart, I know what to do.”

She always wanted to be a doctor but shied away from medical school and even worked for three years as a social worker in Florida. Then her grandmother died from a deep vein thrombosis, something that could have easily been treated with medication. Only, doctors were on strike at that moment in her native Jamaica, and she never received the blood thinners she needed. “In that moment, I said even if I never get paid, I want to be a doctor to help people,” Brown said. “I want to be the one doctor that doesn’t go on strike. I applied to medical school, and here I am.”

Here they are in Fayetteville, headquarters to the Southern Regional Area Health Education Center, home to some of the brightest young doctors from across the country. When they leave, they leave as full-fledged doctors ready to practice family medicine on their own.

But the hope is they’ll stay. That’s the mission of Southern Regional AHEC. SR-AHEC exists solely to fill health care needs of our community. That’s the simplest way to explain a place that is a teaching center and thriving family practice that logs more than 25,000 appointments every year. But even if you never step foot inside the brick building across from Cape Fear Valley Medical Center, you’ve most likely been touched by it nonetheless, if you’ve filled a prescription, had an X-ray at the dentist, paid a visit to your family doctor or sent a child to a Cumberland County school.

In any given year, SR-AHEC:

• Offers free physicals to more than 100 new Cumberland County teachers

• Provides medical care to dozens of children at the county’s juvenile detention center

• Reaches out to hundreds of high school students interested in health care careers

• Leads countless continuing education classes for pharmacists, nurses, dental hygienists and mental health counselors

• Answers more than 4,000 questions in its medical library

• Houses students from across the country, even the world

• Provides student health services at Fayetteville State University

And it isn’t just folks in Fayetteville who are helped. SR-AHEC serves Bladen, Cumberland, Harnett, Hoke, Moore, Richmond, Robeson, Sampson and Scotland counties. When students arrive here, they are sent to clinics, hospitals and doctor’s offices across the Cape Fear region. SR-AHEC even finds them a place to sleep. The center owns or rents houses in Aberdeen, Clinton, Fayetteville, Laurinburg and Lumberton. These are short-timers, students who come here for a week or maybe a month to learn. Residents are here for three years.

Whatever their medical stripe may be, Fayetteville is at the heart of teaching tomorrow’s nurses, doctors and pharmacists.

Dr. Deborah Teasley laughs sympathetically when visitors just shake their heads, overwhelmed. On top of everything else, the center has earned a reputation as a leader in pediatric cardiology, diabetic care and child abuse investigations. It has the largest outpatient clinic in the region for people with HIV and AIDS.

Teasley knows that it’s not easy to explain what she and SR-AHEC do. For one, she wears several hats: doctor, faculty member at Duke University and CEO of Southern Regional AHEC. But the whole idea, Teasley says, is to get medical care to underserved areas. SR-AHEC has been a part of the community since 1974. While it’s a non-profit agency, it has also some unique partnerships, including Duke and a statewide system of other AHECs. It’s also a business in that it’s a doctor’s office, just like any other.

The campus sprawls on Owen Drive. Downstairs, the clinic buzzes with activity. It’s a little quieter upstairs, home to offices and a large classroom. Outside, on a warm afternoon, several residents spread out a picnic lunch in the shady backyard behind a SR-AHEC house, a split-level ranch.

It’s a rare moment of downtime. A resident’s hours are notorious. In fact, new rules were recently put in place limiting them to 80-hour work weeks. Most of us work half that. In three years at SR-AHEC, residents will see at least 1,700 patients in addition to their rotations.

Dr. Nicole Shields wrapped up a rotation earlier this fall at Southeastern Regional Medical Center in Lumberton, working in the hospital’s pediatric wing. On a recent day, several families of ill children did not speak any English. Shields learned a smattering of Spanish while growing up in Florida but not enough to explain technical medical problems to these new Hispanic immigrants.

It’s just one of the challenges, one of many she’ll face over the next three years. She will learn to balance life as a doctor with family life.

For Shields, that might be a double whammy. She’s a resident and an Army wife. She married during medical school. When it came time for residency, Fayetteville seemed like the perfect choice, until her military husband left Fort Bragg for Fort Benning. They’re looking forward to December, when he returns to Fayetteville.

She just hopes she has time to see him. Still, she says it’s worth the long hours to become a practicing family physician.

“I love it,” Shields said. “This is a specialty that allows you to care for the whole patient.”

For Shields, one of the draws to this residency program was Dr. Sandra Carr Johnson.

Johnson supervises all 22 residents. She’s also the clinic chief who still sees her own stable of patients. It’s busy, but she and the rest of the staff at SR-AHEC gain fulfillment in knowing that if these young doctors learn good habits here, they will practice the best care for the rest of their careers.

“To influence the positive growth of health care is a higher calling,” Johnson says. “I can influence the standards of care.”