By Michael Haederle

Mountain Medicine

UNM Alumni Return to Their Rural Hometown to Practice

The high mountain valleys of northern Rio Arriba County are known for stunning vistas, ranging from the Brazos Cliffs to the east to the jagged San Juan peaks just across the border in Colorado.

But it can be a complicated place to practice medicine.

Just ask Jodi Casados, MD '04, and Levi Maes, MD '07, the full-time physicians at La Clinica del Pueblo de Rio Arriba, a Federally Qualified Health Center in Tierra Amarilla serving 7,000 or so local residents (along with the thousands of tourists who flock to the area in the summer).

"We really do cradle-to-grave here - geriatrics, trauma, urgent care," Casados says. "We're the only clinic for at least a 60-mile radius."

But Casados and Maes, both of whom grew up in the area, wouldn't have it any other way. Since joining the multi-specialty clinic in 2016, they have built a thriving primary care practice, while providing urgent care and addressing a wave of opioid abuse.

They have known each other since elementary school and both still live nearby. They graduated two years apart from Escalante High School (where graduating classes number about 30).

Maes, raised by his grandparents in Canjilon, a ranching community about 19 miles south of Tierra Amarilla, became interested in medicine as a child during a lengthy stay in the hospital recuperating from a broken leg. "I kind of knew throughout high school that that's what I wanted to do."

He went to New Mexico Highlands University as an undergraduate and spent a year in Bethesda, Md., doing research at the National Institutes of Health before getting into medical school.

Casados, whose father was a schoolteacher and whose mother was the longtime La Clinica administrator, planned to major in business at UNM, but changed her mind when she took a biology class and decided to shift to the premed track. "I realized for the first time I could be the person impacting this community," she says.

They share the La Clinica practice with a physician assistant, a nurse, a dentist and a dental hygienist. Another physician drives in to cover clinic duties one day a week.

Isolation brings unique challenges. EspaƱola, the nearest town of any size, is nearly 70 miles away. Until recently there was no pharmacy in the area. And patients often present with unusual complaints.

"There's a lot of injuries here," Casados says. Many are due to accidents related to construction, hunting, logging and snowmobiling. Strokes and heart attacks pose special challenges, which is why several times a week choppers land on the helipad next to the parking lot to airlift patients to UNM Hospital.

Both physicians credit UNM's post-baccalaureate program for future medical students with providing them with the skills they needed to succeed in medical school. "For me that was huge, and it made all the difference in my education," Casados says.

She also credits UNM's Practical Immersion Experience with helping her to see how great a need there is for doctors.

"They certainly didn't let you forget it," she says "You got out here and thought, 'This is really amazing. I want to help these people!'"

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