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Home away from home

Posted by on Thursday, March 1, 2018 in Features, Winter 2018 .

General surgery resident Eric Quintana, MD, his wife, Elissa, and their niece, Ellena. Photo by John Russell.

Eric Quintana, MD, comes from a close and large extended Hispanic family in New Mexico – his paternal great-grandparents had 17 children; and he has three siblings and 30 first cousins. Quintana is the only member of his family to become a doctor, or to graduate from college.

In June 2017, when he became a first-year general surgery resident at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC), it was the first time he had left New Mexico and his family for an extended period of time. He had left the state only for brief work trips before, so leaving those he loved behind for at least five years of training was a tough decision.

“Family is a very core element to who I am and who my family is,” said Quintana, 38. “My path to medicine has been very long and nontraditional.”

He started medical school at the University of New Mexico (UNM) when he was 33. Two medical school mentors encouraged him to look outside of New Mexico for his residency. “They said ‘you need to go somewhere else, see a new system, and see the way they do things that might be different from the way we do it here. You can always come back to New Mexico where you already know the way we do things, but if you don’t, you can take New Mexico with you.’”


The long path to an MD

Quintana wanted to be a physician from early in his life. His great-great-grandmother was a curandero, a Mexican healer, who used herbs and roots from the field to make potions and salves. He watched as his family physician, James Houle, MD, established relationships with his patients in addition to taking care of their healthcare needs. “When we got sick he knew exactly what to do. I admired the way he could figure out what was wrong with us, but he also knew about what we were doing in school or in sports. He was like part of the family.”

In high school Quintana took advantage of all the gifted classes available to him, then was offered an internship with a community mentor during his sophomore year. He was matched with a Child Life consultant at the University of New Mexico Children’s Hospital and worked there several hours a day for three to four days a week. Shortly after, he was referred to a unique program that allows high school students to earn a high school and nursing degree at the same time.

In 1998, shortly after he graduated from high school, his daughter, Joann, was born, and he soon became her single parent. After practicing in pediatrics, medical-surgical and ICU care, he was offered a job providing wound care at a large rehabilitation facility. He was promoted to assistant director of nursing at the facility, then director of nursing, while he gradually worked on and completed his bachelor’s degree at UNM.

“I wanted to make sure I’d be there for Joann, so I put off going to medical school. I really enjoyed those years. Looking back, I’m really glad I took the time to be there in her life.”

When his daughter started high school, he left the rehab facility and taught nursing at a community college. Going to medical school was still his plan, but he knew he couldn’t do it just yet. “My philosophy was I could take what I had learned, the years of experience I had and my beliefs, and teach a new generation of nurses coming straight out of the gate,” Quintana said.

He supplemented his income by also working as an emergency room nurse at Presbyterian Rust Medical Center for three 12-hour shifts a week. In 2010, he was given the New Mexico Center for Nursing Excellence Award. Now married, Quintana’s wife, Elissa, asked him why he wasn’t in medical school. “I said, ‘I have to pay the mortgage. I have to pay the bills. I have to get Joann back and forth to school and volleyball.’”

Elissa told him that she could take on extra shifts as an emergency room nurse to support their family, and reminded him that Joann would soon be driving, and Quintana decided he’d finally apply to medical schools. First, he had to complete some pre-med courses and take his Medical College Admission Test. He applied to six medical schools, including the University of New Mexico, where he was accepted and began medical school at age 33.

For the first two years of medical school he continued to work at Presbyterian Rust Medical Center as a clinical nurse educator and a relief charge nurse, but during the third year of medical school and its clinical rotations, he had to reduce his work hours. Also during medical school, he and his wife took in 3-year-old Ellena, Quintana’s niece who had been placed in the Colorado foster system. He and Elissa had to undergo a home study and training to be foster parents, and they were given primary custody of Ellena, now 6.


Choosing a specialty

Quintana was leaning toward emergency medicine during medical school, but during a general surgery rotation, he “fell in love” with being inside the operating room. “I love taking care of surgical patients and being able to see a problem and fix it right then and there. You see results in real time.”

He also enjoys learning about his patients during conversations at the bedside. One encounter during his general surgery rotation in medical school reinforced his desire to pursue general surgery.

“I took care of a patient with a large tumor in his stomach. He couldn’t eat or drink. He said all he wanted was to be able to enjoy his grandkids,” he said. Quintana and the surgical team performed a very complex surgery on the man, restoring his ability to eat and drink and giving him back some quality of life. “I saw him during his follow-up visit and he thanked me for giving him time with his grandkids. The ability to give someone back their life and additional time they would have lost is very rewarding to me.”

But while he could finish an emergency medicine residency in three years, he would have to commit to five or six years in general surgery. “I re-approached my wife and said ‘what if I had to do a five- or six-year residency?’ But she’s so supportive, she said, ‘I’d rather you do something you’re going to love for the rest of your life, instead of doing something just to get it done quickly.’ So I switched my focus to general surgery.”

During his fourth year of medical school, he quit work to focus on residency interviews. He had 113 programs on his initial list, and whittled it down to 56. He was invited for 19 interviews and chose 13 to visit.

“I was very excited to get the invitation from Vanderbilt,” he said, adding that his mentors at UNM had told him it would be a great fit. “During my first lunch here with some research residents, it was apparent that Vanderbilt offered a family environment and there was a collegial relationship among residents.”

Quintana spent the afternoon at VUMC with John Stokes, MD, a general surgery resident, who took him to the operating room to observe a surgery. “When we walked into the OR, there were two surgeons at the table. The way the senior surgeon (Christina Bailey, MD) talked to the junior surgeon (Suzie Lee, MD) blew me away. She (Bailey) was very patient and was going through the case (removing part of a colon) methodically and walking the junior surgeon through her thinking. Then Bailey scrubbed out and Stokes scrubbed in with Quintana still observing. “The senior surgeon was so patient. She just walked him through the surgery and I saw his confidence level soar through the roof. They didn’t know who I was or where I was from. This wasn’t a show for me. This level of teaching has to come from a higher (leadership) level.”

He called Elissa from the Nashville airport after his interview and said “I think I’ve found our new home.” He was invited back for Second Look Weekend, observed more surgery and selected Vanderbilt as his No. 1 choice for Match Day.

In 2017, after Match Day, Quintana become a grandfather. Joann gave birth to a daughter, Azaleyah. Preparing to leave New Mexico and his family would be one of the hardest things he’s done in his life.

“Everyone in my huge family is in New Mexico. Leaving my family behind is more than just leaving my daughter and granddaughter and parents. It’s leaving my grandparents, cousins, nieces, nephews — all of whom I’m very involved with. Telling them I was going to be gone five, six, seven years was difficult.”


A new city, a new life

Nashville has been a great choice for his family, Quintana said. Elissa is a night nurse in VUMC’s Emergency Department, and her mother moved to Nashville with them to help care for Ellena.

As Quintana nears the end of his internship year of residency at Vanderbilt, he isn’t sure what the future holds. Interested in surgical critical care and surgical oncology initially, he has also found colorectal surgery appealing and enjoyed his transplant rotation as well. All would require additional training. He said he and Elissa will decide after his training whether to go back to New Mexico, stay in Nashville or go elsewhere.

“I love surgery. When I was a kid I took apart my dad’s drill to figure out how it worked inside. I rebuilt an engine two or three times. If a heater is broken, I take it apart and fix it. I’ve always had a knack of wanting to solve a puzzle, to solve a mystery and fix it with my hands. Being at the operating table is a whole different experience. When you step up there, the world just disappears and you have this immense focus directly on that patient.”