In 1867, the Sisters of Mercy posted an advertisement in a St. Louis newspaper. “Wanted,” the ad stated. “Young women willing to work hard for little pay on the frontier in Fort Smith, Ark. Contact with outlaws and Indians is possible. Violence to be expected.”
It was an atypical marketing message for any organization hoping to attract top talent, but 150 years later, it has proven effective. In fact, the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce lists Mercy as the number one employer in Sebastian County when accounting for all its locations. On Monday (June 12), the organization added a new facility to the fold — Mercy Clinic-Fort Smith, a $7.9 million, 13,500 square-foot, 28-room facility with eight practicing physicians.
Distinguishing this facility from others in the area — and state as a whole — is that it doubles as a training facility for future physicians, specifically students at the neighboring Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine (ARCOM), which is the first in a series of planned colleges under the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education (ACHE) umbrella. ARCOM will welcome 150 students in its inaugural class this August, and like the Sisters of Mercy a century and a half ago, many are coming to Fort Smith from different locations and walks of life.
Two students in attendance at Monday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony were Madhu Murali and Jelena Ivanova. Murali has lived in Fort Smith for two years. She was born in India, where she also attended high school before earning a bachelor’s degree in pre-med from Salisbury University in Maryland. Fort Smith already feels like home to Murali, who told Talk Business & Politics she was “so excited” to get started.
“We have a clock next door that says how many days are left, and I saw today it says, ’50 days.’ It’s pretty exciting.”
Like Murali, Ivanova is not native to Fort Smith or even the United States. She comes to the region by way of Estonia — “one of those Baltic countries in Europe,” she laughs while gently rocking her nine-month-old daughter. Ivanova, her husband, and their two children — they also have an “eight and a half-year-old” daughter — are living in an on-campus town home and still unpacking boxes.
Ivanova graduated from St. Cloud State University. She has a bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences and a graduate decree in molecular biology. Neither woman is sure of where she wants to specialize, but as Ivanova points out, “That’s why I’m here.”
Murali thinks she may want to focus her career on E.R., admitting she is drawn to high-pressure situations. “I worked as a scribe in the E.R., so that seems to fancy me,” she said. “In the third and fourth year here, is when you get a clearer picture, but you never know what’s coming or what to expect [in E.R.]. Anything can come at any time, and it’s pretty stressful because you have to live with life-and-death situations, but I feel like I work well under pressure.”
Ivanova is considering staying in family medicine, but also notes she is feeling a “push” towards cardiology. “But I know that I will learn more once we start, and that will become a little clearer.”
On how she has been able to find room for a career in medicine while being a mother of two, Ivanova said, “When I went back to school, [my eldest daughter] had just barely turned two, and for me, the first year of my bachelor’s work was the way to figure out how I can make this work. And, you know, I just figured it out for myself. This may not work for someone else.”
If pressure gets to be too much, Ivanova says, “My husband and I — our parents, they’re ready. Once we call them and say, ‘We need help,’ they’ll be packing their suitcases!”
Dr. Sean Baker, chair of the department of primary care at Mercy Clinic Fort Smith, sees the new facility as a continuation of the Sisters of Mercy mission to “try and reach the marginalized and those that maybe go unnoticed,” but added that having the opportunity to train students at the facility is “huge,” because it has local and global impacts.
“People will come here and train in medicine, and they will go to areas, hopefully, around here; but many will go all around the world and provide care to people who need it, and that will all have started for them in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and that’s a huge deal. Many of them will probably want to come back here, too, because most students and residents will work in the area around their college of medicine or their residency program. So it’s very important that we have this opportunity to meet the needs of healthcare now, in this community and in the years to come,” Baker said.
Practicing physicians at the facility, who will also be instructors, include Dr. Gary Edwards, a local physician who left his private Fort Smith-based practice to become a full-time professor of family medicine; Dr. Stuart Williams, ARCOM’s chair of Osteopathic Principles and Practice (OPP); Dr. Lesley Schmitz, also on the OPP faculty; and Dr. Amanda Wright, who doubles as the clinical dean of family medicine.
Other physicians practicing at the clinic, which began seeing patients last Thursday (June 8), are Dr. James Harbin, Dr. Jessiela Roberts, and Dr. George Zabakolas. Dr. Tim Buffy will be the eighth and final physician to join. He starts July 1 and comes to Fort Smith from a family medicine residency in Illinois.