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'I'm right where I want to be'

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If not for Star Trek’s Dr. Spock, Johnnie Wren, MD, might not be practicing family medicine at the Au Sable Forks Health Center in northern New York.

Fresh out of medical school and hoping to find a residency program to launch her career into family medicine, Dr. Wren attended a regional recruitment conference in Massachusetts. She remembers the conference was held shortly before Halloween. “I saw one group of program recruiters, head-to-toe in full costumes – including one dressed as Dr. Spock – and I knew I just had to talk with them.”

It was a fateful decision, one which ultimately brought her to the North Country to attend the Family Medicine Residency Program of UVM Health Network – Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital. The residency is unique in the region, one of only a handful of such programs designed to prepare physicians for a career in rural family medicine.

“It means a lot for the region,” says Marianna Worczak, MD, Director of the Family Medicine Residency Program. “Just hosting the residency creates a huge influx of medical knowledge and experience. And more importantly, so many of our graduates are choosing to stay in the region and practice family medicine in our communities.”

Serving Rural Communities

A graduate of the residency program’s second class, Dr. Wren has been practicing at Au Sable Forks Health Center for more than a year now. She is still overwhelmed by the positive response she’s received from the surrounding community. “They’ve been nothing but positive and welcoming from the moment I arrived,” Dr. Wren says. “Some people have even come back to the practice – after seeking health care elsewhere for many years – and I think it says a lot about the wonderful team we have here.”

The Au Sable Forks Health Center is one of six community-based health centers operated by UVM Health Network – Elizabethtown Community Hospital in Essex County, New York. It serves patients from neighboring towns like Keesville, Peru and Jay, rural communities where people would otherwise need to travel long distances to receive health care or treatment.

“Adding just one doctor can make a huge difference,” says Dr. Worczak, citing evidence that the availability of primary care providers improves community health and decreases hospitalizations and trips to the emergency room.

Dr. Wren says she enjoys the independence that comes with rural family medicine. “The residency program gave me the confidence to come here, spread my wings a bit and learn my own way of practicing,” she says. “It taught me to be self-sufficient – and that’s crucial when you’re in a rural location without a ton of clinical support on a day-to-day basis. You need to be able to handle most situations on your own.”

A Dynamic Learning Environment

For Dr. Worczak, the independence and confidence is by design. “We’re looking for residency candidates that have a passion for family medicine and who want to get out into our communities and make a real impact,” Dr. Worczak says. “This isn’t the place for you if you want to blend into the background.”

The family medicine program is the only residency offered at Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital, which means that residents get first dibs on clinical experiences and rotations that might be inaccessible at larger hospitals. 

Dr. Wren says this was a huge draw. “I spent so much one-on-one time with attending physicians during my rotations,” she says. “Beyond the positive impact on my learning experience, it helped me build relationships with physicians and specialists, people that have my back and consult with me on tricky cases.”

It was this same sense of camaraderie that drew Dr. Wren to Elizabethtown Community Hospital and its collection of community health centers. “I look forward to seeing my patients - watching them grow and seeing their families grow,” says Dr. Wren, who spent part of residency on rotation in Elizabethtown. “I’m right where I want to be.”

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