When Dr. Taylor Rutherford walked across the Fowler Center stage last month to receive her Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree from New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine at Arkansas State University, what the crowd, her family, friends and classmates saw was her smiling face, relieved and proud to have finished her medical degree.
What couldn’t be seen behind the cap, gown and doctoral hood was the challenging and arduous road she took to become a physician, and all the people who helped pave the way for her to become a doctor.
If you were to look back 15 years and see Rutherford’s path, you would see a caring pediatrician in Searcy that sparked a little girl’s interest to one day become someone who cares for sick people.
You would also see a program that Rutherford attended while at Searcy High School that exposed her to healthcare careers and showed her what she could and would do after college. Rutherford tells of how she was impacted by watching a physician in the emergency department at Unity Health calmly orchestrate a team to properly care for a patient who was experiencing a heart attack.
You would also see Dr. Joe Jeffers, an organic chemistry professor at Ouachita Baptist University, who told Rutherford she needed to work harder to get to medical school and pushed her to be the best student she could be. You would see Rutherford respond by making OBU’s President’s List her final two semesters in Arkadelphia.
Take a turn and see a newly-accredited osteopathic medical school in Jonesboro that had a focus to train and support students like Rutherford who want to work and serve in Arkansas and the Delta region. A school that showed her the need and opportunity for aspiring physicians like her to serve in parts of our state that are so desperate for care.
Then you would find local physicians in Walnut Ridge, Paragould, Jonesboro and Blytheville that took time from their busy schedules seeing patients to serve as preceptors and invest in Rutherford and her classmates. They imparted their knowledge and practice of medicine so the next generations can care for our communities.
Lastly, for now, you would see a hospital system in Northeast Arkansas that, when Rutherford began college in 2013, did not have a residency program to train graduating medical students to become physicians that practice internal medicine in the hospital and clinic.
NEA Baptist Health System in Jonesboro is one of nine institutions that in the last decade has created new residency programs in Arkansas with a goal of giving more doctors like Rutherford a chance to continue their medical education in the Natural State. In July, Rutherford will begin the next phase of her journey as she starts her Internal Medicine residency at NEA Baptist.
When people say it takes a village to raise a child, that statement is true tenfold in training a medical student. Rutherford’s story is like many others that attend and graduate from NYITCOM and now three years after the first class graduated amidst a global pandemic, serve as the fruit of the labor of so many who have invested in the future of healthcare in our state.
It has taken physicians, professors, hospital administrators, student development staff and medical education leaders to create paths for Arkansans like Rutherford to be taught, challenged, encouraged, mentored and served here so she’d have a chance to follow this journey in her home state.
When Rutherford completes her residency training in three years, she’s committed to practicing in Arkansas with an eye to not only giving back to the village that raised her, but to becoming part of that support system to help others with similar aspirations.
To some, the diploma Dr. Rutherford held for photos with her family, friends and now physician colleagues may just be a piece of paper that hangs on the wall of her future office, but for those that live in Arkansas and will benefit from her knowledge, skills and training, it represents a journey that will change lives for generations to come.
Editor’s note: Holly Proffitt is the senior career advisor at NYIT College of Osteopathic Medicine at Arkansas State University. The opinions expressed are those of the author.