The first students from Washington State University's Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine are making their way into local, rural clinics.
“We are just trying to immerse ourselves as much as possible,” says Meredith Morrow-Okon, pausing for a moment in between her shift at Providence Clinic in Monroe. “Trying to get a feel for what the medical needs of this community are.”
Morrow-Okon stands out for what she is wearing on the side of her lab coat: a WSU Logo. She is a pioneer, a part of a mission that started on the Pullman campus several years ago.
Then WSU-President Dr. Elson Floyd believed there was a shortage of rural doctors, and suggested the state back the creation of a new Spokane medical school.
There was heavy resistance. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle told Floyd there was little appetite for it, especially with the University of Washington already filling a need.
Floyd persevered, often flying to the west side of the state to meet with Olympia lawmakers. What few knew was that he was also fighting colorectal cancer. Floyd got the votes, and the bill was signed in April of 2015.
Dr. Floyd passed away less than three months later.
There was really no dispute over what to name the school.
“This is his legacy,” said Dr. Larry Schecter, Associate Dean for the Floyd College of Medicine.
The school welcomed the inaugural class this past fall. Morrow-Okon is one of the first 60 students.
“One of the reasons it was created and exists is to begin to create a workforce for rural and underserved areas,” he said. “It's remarkable, a joy, a pleasure to watch the students. It's a pleasure to watch the physicians that are teaching them.”
Schecter says the students are placed into local clinics and hospitals for week-long “intersessions." This week, four students are inside Providence Monroe, meeting with patients across all ages with a variety of issues.
Monroe was picked because of geographic and demographic factors. The students will spend six weeks in the first year in the on-site, real-life scenario, learning from doctors like Deb Nalty.
“We are trying to open their eyes to the joy of practicing primary care,” said Nalty, acknowledging the need for more rural, family practice doctors. “It’s significantly more difficult for us to find people than our colleagues on the I-5 corridor.”
Students will spend their first two years of school primarily in Spokane and have the option in the last two years to spend the rest of their time at one of WSU’s regional campuses. Morrow-Okon, who originally hails from Bellingham, plans on finishing her studies on the WSU Everett campus.
She admits it is not what she planned years ago while working on her degree in International Studies at the University of Washington.
“I didn’t really take any science classes. My area of focus was human rights and, within that subtrack, I really focused on health and on health care access as a human right,” she said, noting she had an "ah-ha" moment. “I want to get my hands dirty and I want to get my boots on the ground. What can I do to help this situation?”
That led her to WSU and the new program in Floyd’s name. She now wears the lab coat with his name, handed out in a ceremony last year.
“There was not a dry eye in the house. I’m kinda getting choked up, even thinking about it,” she said, “'Make him proud,' is something that motivates all 60 of us.”