PANW’s Dr. Evans-Smith: An Accidental Mentor
Webster’s defines mentor as “someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced and often younger person.” But to Dr. Evans-Smith, it’s much more. “Being a mentor is a way to inspire young people to pursue medicine --- which is especially important right now in primary care, as fewer people pursue it. At the same time, it’s important to share honestly – because becoming a physician is a hard, long, and often very expensive road. There must be a motivation beyond just making a living. It’s a calling to a work that makes a difference in the world.”
Patients, parents, and mentees alike seem to agree: making a difference is something that seems to come naturally to Dr. Evans-Smith.
Mentoring in the clinic.
“She has encouraged me and supported me through many struggles and journeys – she’s just amazing. Certainly one of the most influential people in my life, “says Nichole Rogovoy, 22, a recent graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from University of Oregon. Rogovoy is also a life-long patient of Dr. Evans-Smith. “I remember seeing signs around the clinic about Dr. Evans-Smith’s upcoming medical trip to Haiti, and I asked her about it. I told her how much I’d love to do something like that, because I wanted to be a doctor. She said, ‘Well, come with me!’ And she was serious!” Rogovoy recalls, with some incredulity. “And so, I went, and it was an incredible experience. It inspired me to want to pursue rural care or practicing medicine in developing nations.” Rogovoy is currently applying to eight medical schools that offer MD/PhD programs, as her interest lies in clinical treatment as well as research and public health.
Rogovoy says the unwavering support and encouragement she’s received from Dr. Evans-Smith has more than once left her nearly speechless. “My senior year she gave me a nice card along with her own surgery books from medical school. In the card she wrote, ‘I have full faith in you.’ And, well…I don’t think most people just do things like that. She has something special when it comes to mentoring.”
Mentoring in the field.
As Dr. Evans-Smith reflects on her 17th medical mission trip, and her third such trip to Bolivia, she reflects on the unexpected rewards that have come from her humanitarian efforts. “It’s always a remarkably humbling and satisfying experience to provide medical care for people who are medically underserved. But it’s also been so rewarding to watch the young people I’ve taken with me – to see their passion ignite – to watch them become inspired to pursue medicine. Taking these young people on medical team trips has allowed me to show them up close what medicine can provide – especially to those who so desperately need it.”
Sarah Case, 22, who graduated from University of Washington where she studied public health and completed pre-med requirements, has accompanied Dr. Evans-Smith on medical team trips to both Bolivia and Haiti. “Haiti was my first exposure to clinical practice and I had already decided that I wanted to study pre-med in college -- my mom is a nurse practitioner – but Haiti was an experience, especially seeing the poverty and the disparities in healthcare access. It was also inspiring how respected the medical team was and how big of an impact they could make in a short amount of time – every day seeing 150-200 patients.”
Dr. Evans-Smith tries to take 2-4 students who are interested in medicine, nursing, or other health-related fields on each of her medical team trips. “Many have left the experience wanting to work in global health, developing countries, or other high need situations,” says Dr. Evans-Smith. “And I feel so honored to get to be part of their journey.”
Eric Hoeffner, 25, is a second-year medical student at the Oregon Health and Sciences University (OHSU). “I went to Bolivia with Dr. Evans-Smith a few months before starting medical school,” Hoeffner recalls. “What I most took away from our trip was an understanding of both how fortunate we are to live in the United States and the commonalities we have as human beings around the world. Even before that trip, Dr. Evans-Smith provided me with enormous guidance throughout my process of applying to medical school. She invited me to dinner at her home and advised me through the application process, went over my application, discussed the details of what it is like to be a doctor and helped me practice interview skills.”
Hoeffner received life-changing news while on the medical team trip to Bolivia. “I was actually with Dr. Evans-Smith, as well as her colleagues Dr. Buerk, Dr. Dahl, and Dr. Bluhm in Bolivia at the time I found out I was accepted to OHSU. I had to make the decision regarding which medical school to attend before coming back to the US, which was especially difficult being away from my family and other close friends in the US. Dr. Evans-Smith and others on the team were enormously helpful in talking this life-changing decision through with me, and I could honestly have not done it without them. “
Students who work with Dr. Evans-Smith are pre-screened and know it’s not a vacation they’re embarking on, but a week-plus of long days, language barriers, cultural differences, hot climates, and hard work, with plenty of opportunities for learning. Case remembers, “Working as a team unit outside of what the providers did, with the triage, pharmacy and eye care station, and seeing what goes on behind the scenes and how much organization and work it takes to put something like that together was eye-opening. It’s a lot of work -- and how Mari Kay does it is inspiring all by itself. But the whole experience really affirmed my decision to work in healthcare, and especially to work in global health.”
Dr. Evans-Smith believes the entire medical team benefits from the youthful enthusiasm and curiosity of the young mentees she brings on medical trips. “Most new graduates don’t have much opportunity to really see what it’s like to be a doctor, even if they shadow me for a day or two at work. The medical trips provide a much richer experience, I think, especially if they’re considering medicine as a career.”
Paying it forward.
As someone who was mentored herself, Dr. Evans-Smith knows that the experience can be a valuable, formative one, “Dr. Kent Thornburg from OHSU mentored me in my research experience. And my first international trip was at age nineteen, and included a visit to a children’s hospital in Haiti. I recall feeling a longing to go back there.”
Those who know Dr. Evans-Smith know that Haiti has a special place in her heart. The fondness is clear to her mentees as well – as is her desire to connect with the students. “It’s really obvious how much Mari Kay cares about the clinic and the patients but also the people she brings, including the students she’s mentoring. She always asks about what we are thinking of doing for the future, is so willing to share her own experience. It’s all been so positive and inspiring,” says Case, who currently works as a program coordinator for the University of Washington Global Health Department. She’s also applying to medical schools and is grateful to the assistance Dr. Evans-Smith so freely provides, “She’s given me a lot of practical advice about applying to medical school. She’s also written a letter of recommendation for me, and connected me with her colleague, Dr. Mendelson, who has facilitated interviews at OHSU. That connection and her letter have both been very useful.”
Case’s experiences in Bolivia and Haiti affirmed her desire to work in healthcare, “After medical school, I hope to be working as a physician in primary care – and find a blend of public and global health work in clinical practice – working with underserved communities here and apply that knowledge and experience to research or development work in other countries.”
Dr. Evans-Smith says the last trip to Bolivia provided a unique and meaningful experience in that she was able to work with Bolivian medical school students and doctors. “Working with Dr. Marco Sinani Moye and Dr. Fabiola Flores Coro was so gratifying! I learned a lot from them culturally in how they treat patients, and they learned from me as well. We were all so happy to have had that experience. They both want to come back and volunteer again next time. Fabiola plans to be an ob/gyn, and Marco a surgeon.”
As Dr. Evans-Smith prepares to send her third medical school letter of recommendation this year, she says, “I’ve always wanted to mentor the younger generation – and encourage more people to study medicine. It seemed like something I’d do after I’d completed my medical team work, or maybe as I eased into retirement. But writing these letters and recalling the work I’ve done with these new med students makes me see that mentoring is something I’ve been doing all along. I just didn’t realize it.”
An accidental mentor? Quite possibly, the best kind.