Meeting their match

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On the morning of March 15, nearly 30,000 graduating medical students around the country participated in annual Match Day ceremonies. At UCI, 109 of them gathered in a courtyard in front of the Medical Education Building for the festive, emotional event. They won’t actually receive M.D.s until June, but their journeys as physicians started on this day.

Following UCI tradition, each future doctor was called randomly to a podium – one at a time – to open an envelope and read aloud before hundreds of family members, friends and classmates the name and location of the hospital where he or she will spend the next three to seven years pursuing postgraduate medical training.

As always, UCI’s 2019 cohort earned residency positions at some of the nation’s finest institutions, ranging from Harvard University and Stanford University to UCI.

A new life

For Katy Lunny, Match Day was the first of several exciting events. She’s due to give birth any day now to her first child, a girl. And starting in July, after her graduation from medical school, Lunny will begin a residency in psychiatry at UCI, her top choice.

“UCI is actually really unique in that we get to see such a wide variety of patients,” she says. “We see everyone from the homeless and uninsured to people who are highly insured and can pay privately, and I feel like in some programs you don’t get that perspective.”

It’s the next step on Lunny’s very personal journey to practicing addiction psychiatry. Her mother had a substance abuse problems and, eight years ago, died of an overdose. This led Lunny – before medical school – to pursue research in an addictions lab at UCLA, where she was later hired as a clinical research coordinator. It has also nurtured one of her strengths: empathy.

“Substance abuse affects everyone,” Lunny says, “so for me it’s important to get to know people and build a relationship – and to treat everyone with respect no matter where they’re coming from.”

Integrating her passions

Treating all patients with the utmost care is a pillar of UCI’s Program in Medical Education for the Latino Community, a five-year master’s-M.D. program.

Ruzan Orkusyan, a PRIME-LC graduate, started learning Spanish when she was in eighth grade, continued in high school and eventually minored in Spanish at California State University, Fresno, where she earned a B.S. in biology. When Orkusyan discovered PRIME-LC during her medical school application process, she realized that it integrated all her passions.

“I really fell in love with UCI – and even more so with the PRIME-LC program,” she says. “It really creates a family within a family where you’re supported in your journey to becoming the type of leader you want to be for underserved populations.”

Each year, 10 to 12 incoming medical students join PRIME-LC. In addition to coursework – including Chicano/Latino studies classes that mix sociology with medicine – Orkusyan and her PRIME-LC peers had opportunities to work with Border Angels in San Diego, travel to the Central Valley to provide health services to migrant farmers, and even do rotations in Lima, Peru, to experience an entirely different healthcare system.

Orkusyan, who’s graduating with a master’s in public health as well as an M.D., learned Friday that she was accepted into the pediatrics residency program at Stanford, where she’ll begin putting her combined talents into community wellness.

She describes one of her favorite memories: “I helped conduct a summer pre-med program for high school students after my first year of medical school, and I overheard one of them say he was passionate about engineering and really liked medicine and wished he could do both. I remember turning around and telling him, ‘Hey, you actually can do both. There are so many possibilities.’ His eyes just lit up, and he was so excited. I think that’s the most fulfilling thing to me: being able to share some of my joy about what I do with other people.”

Changing directions

Eric Zuniga came to UCI’s PRIME-LC program with a most untraditional academic background: a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from USC. The son of Mexican immigrants, he had always been interested in medicine but decided to major in a field that would enable him to support his family as soon as possible, since his father struggled with alcoholism. The wait to become a doctor seemed too long.

Yet Zuniga’s passion never waned. Even while working as an engineer, he spent evenings volunteering at a local hospital where the need for medical interpreters was dire. He would translate for Latino patients.

“A lot of them were very similar to my relatives or parents,” he says. “I was connecting to people I could relate to. A year into volunteering, patients would reach out to me more than to the physicians. I realized I was more excited to go to the hospital than to the job I was getting paid for.”

By the time Zuniga concluded that to better help such patients, he would have to attend medical school, his family situation had stabilized, so he took the opportunity. UCI was his top choice, and he credits the PRIME-LC program for enabling him to think about healthcare on a community – rather than just individual – level.

Zuniga, who wants to work in a low-income area like the one he grew up in, will serve his residency in medicine-pediatrics at USC.

“This path I’m on feels very unique, and it shouldn’t be,” he says. “A lot of people in my community haven’t been as lucky, and it’s not for lack for trying. Things just didn’t align for them. I feel incredibly lucky to have made it this far.”