Mentor Found Niche in Place She Didn't Expect

June 22, 2020 12:14 pm David Mitchell

When Kristina Diaz, M.D., left home for college as a 17-year-old, she told her parents -- both health care professionals in Yuma, Ariz. -- that she had no intention of going into medicine, and she definitely wasn't moving back to Yuma.

[headshot of Kristina Diaz, M.D.]

Ever.

She was wrong on both counts.

Diaz is playing a vital role in her hometown's battle with the COVID-19 pandemic as chief academic officer, family medicine residency director and designated institutional official at Yuma Regional Medical Center.

"We're definitely in the midst of a surge," said Diaz, whose 406-bed community hospital has dedicated two units to patients with COVID-19. "We're quite busy."

Diaz finds herself busy in a place she didn't envision in her future, doing a job she thought she didn't want.

And she's happy about it.

After earning a business degree from the University of Arizona, Diaz considered law school, but she ultimately followed her mother and father -- a nurse and pharmacist, respectively -- into health care. While she was wrapping up her family medicine training at the University of Kansas, Diaz was looking for jobs in her home state. The options seemed limited.

"There wasn't a plethora of primary care jobs in Arizona at the time," she said. "One place that was hiring was Yuma."

So, Diaz accepted an employed position with a three-year contract, planning to move on when it expired.

Ten years after moving home, she's still there.

"I found my niche," Diaz said. "I realized how much I love teaching. My husband and I have talked about the fact that we could go somewhere else, but why would we? The people here are friendly and welcoming. They appreciate what we do."

Diaz took the program director's job in Yuma in 2015, when the family medicine residency program -- the only training program in the city -- was fairly new.

"Access to care had been a big issue," she said. "People used to wait six weeks to see their primary care physician and they would end up in the urgent care or ER. Now you can get an appointment the same day."

Yuma, located in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona's southwestern corner near the borders of California and Mexico, is roughly a three-hour drive (to the east or west) from any other large U.S. city. Diaz said patients drive more than 90 miles to see her.

Access will get a little better starting July 1 when the training program expands from six residency positions per class to eight.

Diaz said that during the pandemic, the program started offering virtual patient visits, moved didactics online, emphasized personal protective equipment training for residents, and increased communications with residents and faculty. But the program has tried to keep things as normal as possible for residents, who are considered essential workers by the hospital.

"Babies are born whether there's COVID or not," Diaz said. "People are sick with things other than COVID. People still have trauma and go to the ER."

Diaz said the program has done a good job of retaining residents in the community after they graduate, including three from this year's class who are staying in Yuma. She said three program graduates serve as residency faculty, and several others are helping train residents during local rotations.

"They're not my residents anymore," she said, "but they're my colleagues, and I can still help them and mentor them. That's very special and meaningful."

Diaz enjoys a similar relationship -- in reverse -- with one of her own residency mentors. Deborah Clements, M.D., professor and chair of Family and Community Medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine and director of the Northwestern McGaw Family Medicine Residency at Lake Forest, was an associate program director at the University of Kansas when Diaz was a resident. The two will share the virtual stage in a July 30 plenary session during the National Conference of Family Medicine Residents and Medical Students.

"As a program director, I realize I still need a mentor and support," Diaz said. "Her knowledge is vast, and her experience is strong. I continue to seek her out for advice."

Diaz and Clements will discuss the National Resident Matching Program's move to a virtual process in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Diaz, a graduate of the Ross University School of Medicine in the Caribbean, also will present a session designed to help international medical students navigate the Match during the online conference, which is scheduled for July 30-Aug. 1.

"International medical graduates are really at a disadvantage," Diaz said. "There is such a gap, a lack of guidance, on how to be successful in the Match. I enjoy helping students get their appointments with residency programs."