Diversity Matters: Welcoming a diverse community

July 24, 2017  //  FOUND IN: Our Employees,

The diversity of the students, faculty, staff and patients at Michigan Medicine creates an enriching environment for everyone. Such diversity extends to the residency program as well, where individuals like Valeria Valbuena are drawn to U-M for its steadfast commitment to diversifying the medical field.

From conferences to recruiting fairs, “I have seen [Michigan] actively recruiting and encouraging students from all levels of training,” Valbuena said. “Diversity in every front is being sought and welcomed at U-M like nowhere else in the country.”

A childhood dream

Ever since Valbuena could remember, she has wanted to be a doctor.

Growing up in a rural area of Colombia, she saw physicians as leaders in her community, taking an active role in politics and social justice.

“It is a common Colombian saying that every family needs a doctor, a lawyer and a priest,” said Valbuena, now 26. “I just found myself to be better suited for the first.”

Since the start of her career, she has longed to advocate for her community as she pursued medicine.

She was thrilled to be matched for her residency with the U-M Department of Surgery, not just for its stature as one of the top surgery residency programs in the country, but because of what Valbuena viewed as a steadfast commitment to inclusion and diversity.

“Throughout the years, I have seen [Michigan] at every minority student conference,” she said.

Valbuena’s family, originally based in New York City, moved back to Colombia when she was one year old. She could have attended medical school in Colombia, however, her mother pushed her to complete her studies in the U.S. where there is a more robust financial support system for students looking to pursue higher education.

She spent her undergraduate years in Florida and then headed to medical school at The University of Illinois at Chicago where she was drawn to general surgery.

“I’m a very manual person. I love the idea of working with my hands,” Valbuena said. Unlike other areas of medicine, surgery, she said, provides the opportunity “to physically repair what is damaged. There is a great deal of professional satisfaction in taking care of patients both at the bedside and in the operating room.”

Her mentor in medical school, Andrew Gonzalez, M.D., a current surgical chief resident at the University of Illinois, spoke highly about U-M after participating in the Health Services Research Fellowship at the Center for Healthcare Outcomes & Policy.

So when the opportunity arose for a four-week visiting clerkship sponsored by the Office for Health Equity and Inclusion (OHEI) at Michigan Medicine, Valbuena didn’t hesitate. She began the clerkship in August 2016, her fourth year of medical school. The program’s goal is to promote the development of medical students interested in health equity and inclusion work.

“One of the things I treasured the most about training at the University of Illinois were my patients. We prided ourselves on taking care of everybody because our community was largely composed of patients of disadvantaged backgrounds,” Valbuena said. “Serving them is what I’m hoping to do for the rest of my career.”

Valbuena spent her time during the clerkship working in the Trauma Burn Intensive Care Unit and was immediately impressed. “Everyone — from the nurses to the residents and surgeons — made me feel like part of the team,” Valbuena said.

Through the clerkship, she was paired with a mentor, David Machado-Aranda, M.D., a surgeon scientist with similar background and interests. Both he and Jill Cherry-Bukowiec, M.D., the medical director of the Trauma Burn ICU, “were incredible role models,” Valbuena said.

“[Cherry-Bukowiec] is very involved in medical student education, research, and has two little ones at home. Seeing her balance it all was very inspiring.”

Initially, Valbuena didn’t see herself heading to a smaller city like Ann Arbor for residency. She sought the large metropolitan settings where the populations she is most interested in serving are more prevalent.

“As physicians of color, we tend to flock to the cities more densely populated by minorities. One of our biggest impacts is to go back and care for our communities,” Valbuena said.

But other leading institutions often have less concrete goals and efforts when recruiting students of diverse backgrounds. And her experience during her clerkship made it clear that Michigan leadership truly embraced and dedicated themselves to addressing the problem of increasing minorities in medicine. For instance, the director of OHEI, David Brown, M.D., is a minority head and neck surgeon and a champion for diversity in the health system and medical school.

“As an institution, it is very easy to say you’re welcoming to change and inclusion, but Michigan is putting in a significant effort and seeking participation from everybody,” Valbuena said.

Another draw was chairman Michael Mulholland’s strong support for women and the program’s focus on the training of a balanced surgeon.

Surgery in general “has a concerning track record of overworking trainees and making it difficult to pursue regular life milestones, like starting a family,” Valbuena said. “But at Michigan, the program is not only trying to ensure your academic success, but your personal one too.”

As Valbuena begins her residency, she is excited to support OHEI’s efforts to recruit more minority physicians to the university.

“When I’m a chief resident, I hope I get to look back at seven years of work and see that we are leading the way towards creating not only an excellent, but also diverse workforce in medicine.”