By Wendy Grossman Kantor

Desert Soul

Surgical Resident Heidi Overton Stays True to Her New Mexico Roots

Growing up in Gallup as a small-town minister's daughter, Heidi Overton regularly accompanied her father on trips to the hospital to visit sick parishioners.

"I liked that," she recalls. "But I didn't like hospitals then." These days, in her surgical residency at Johns Hopkins Medicine, she's spending a lot of time in the hospital - 80 hours a week, on average. It's the latest chapter in an educational odyssey that has brought Overton (MD '15) from rural New Mexico to the East Coast.

Sitting in coffee shop near downtown Baltimore - a short drive from The Johns Hopkins Hospital - Overton tells how, during the early days of her residency, family members flew in with vacuum-sealed frozen meals and a steady supply of green chile.

"If you're a New Mexican and you have chile in your freezer, you're home," Overton explains. "You cannot be so homesick."

As a teen, Overton thought maybe someday she'd become a soccer coach and resisted when her mother, Natalie, urged her to consider sports medicine or physical therapy. In fact, she persuaded her mother to pursue a health care career instead. Natalie Overton went on to become a registered nurse and while Heidi was in high school, urged her to shadow their family doctor. This time, she was hooked.

As co-valedictorian, Overton decided on the University of New Mexico's Combined BA/MD Program, then in its second year. Students who were admitted to UNM's College of Arts and Sciences and maintained good grades were guaranteed admission into the School of Medicine.

What sold her on the program was a reception where she and her parents were seated next to Paul B. Roth, MD, MS, Chancellor for Health Sciences and Dean of the School of Medicine. Roth explained his vision for the BA/MD program was to address New Mexico's physician shortage by training more doctors in state and building the medical workforce.

Overton went home and signed her acceptance paperwork that evening. "I was like, 'Man, I have to be a part of this,'" she says. She didn't set out to become a surgeon, but her second rotation in medical school was surgery and surgical oncology - and she knew she was home.

"I fell in love with the operating room," Overton says. Even when she was on other rotations, after working a full day she went straight to the O.R. to scrub in. "There's something about the operating room that you don't get anywhere else," she says. "You're very focused. There's one problem and you're trying to fix it."

She became close with surgeons like Bridget Fahy, MD, an associate professor in the Department of Surgery. "These great clinicians, great surgeons took me under their wing," she says.

Overton was the first student Fahy met when she came to UNM in July 2013. "I thought, 'Holy smokes, this is a total rock star!'" Fahy says. "She's a special person, not just because she's very bright - because there's lots of very bright medical students here - she has this amazing heart for medicine and for patients."

While Overton was in medical school Gov. Susana Martinez nominated her to become the student member of the UNM Board of Regents. "I had a little window into the world of high-level governance and decision-making," she says. "It was a pretty overwhelming time. That's when surgery and the O.R. became my place of solitude."

Overton can't forget the families she worked with as a medical student - people who drove hours from their home on the Navajo reservation to meet with her. "They're burned in my memory," she says. "For those patients, that drive to Albuquerque is their only opportunity. I want to get the best medical training and bring that back."

Graduating near the top of her medical school class, she applied to 15 residency programs. But when she was offered an interview at Johns Hopkins, consistently ranked as the best surgical residency program in the country, she knew she had to go.

For the first two years of her clinical training, she woke every day at 3 a.m., started rounds at 6:30 a.m. to meet her patients, and was in the operating room by 7:30 a.m. Most days, she operated on one to three patients. She performed rounds in the evening between 5 and 6, and usually left around 7 p.m. After work, she went home to eat, exercise, and study for the next day.

In Baltimore, she bought a one-bedroom concrete loft in Locust Point, a neighborhood about 12 minutes away from the hospital. "I never imagined my first home would be a condo in the city," she says. She wakes up every morning with a view of the boats in the harbor, train tracks and giant stacks of what she thinks is the city's salt supply. "I can see the horizon," Overton says. "I can see the sunrise. It helps my desert soul."

She loves to go for five-mile runs along Baltimore's Inner Harbor and plays co-ed soccer. She also attends events hosted by the School of Medicine Alumni Association's Washington, D.C., chapter. But New Mexico is never far from her thoughts.

"People know that if they invite me to a dinner party, I'm probably going to bring something with green chile, like green chile enchiladas, or green chile chicken, or green chile cheeseburgers," she says. "I'm trying to teach them that you can put green chile on everything."

This fall, Overton is also starting a PhD program at Johns Hopkins, studying clinical investigation in public health. She has years of training on the East Coast ahead of her before she can return home to work with the Native American patients she met in medical school.

"I fully expect that some point she'll run a university or a health care system, or maybe she'll be a governor," Fahy says. "Her possibilities are unlimited. She's really the very best that the university and the state has to offer."

Even though Overton is 1,900 miles from home, she's still trying to help the people she grew up with. She applied for a National Institutes of Health grant to study racial and ethnic disparities in genomic medicine. She proposed focusing on African Americans in Baltimore and Native Americans and Hispanics in Albuquerque.

"New Mexico is always on my mind," she says. "I want to find ways to take the time and skills I'm learning here to address problems back home - even from a distance."

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