Arinea Salas is a Bernardo native and was the Valedictorian at Belen High School in 2012. She recently finished medical school at the University of New Mexico and will fill her residency in Oregon in the fall.
Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where are you from and where did you graduate from high school?
I'm from Bernardo, and I graduated high school in 2012 from Belen.
Were there any courses in Belen that led you to believe you wanted to go to medical school at some point, or was that always in the back of your mind?
It's always been in the back of my mind. When I was a year old I had heart surgery, and after that I had appointments annually. It just interested me. Medicine, it seemed so foreign and weird and I couldn't understand the scar I had down my chest. I think that peaked my interest at a very young age, and I mapped out, I think my path in sixth grade and how I could get to medical school. So I have always had it in the back of my mind.
It takes an inquisitive mind to say 'I have this scar on me, I want to know where it's from.' So again, was that a driving factor for you?
I think so. I was just interested in the how the body worked. It seemed so complicated and mysterious. Any time I would go to the hospital that was a whole, foreign world. It was fascinating and I wanted to know more.
You graduated Valedictorian. What did you get your undergraduate in at the University of New Mexico?
I got this kind of weird-sounding major. It was health medicine and human values. The only way I can describe it as a combination platter of upper level Spanish, bio and psyche. It was definitely a degree geared toward medicine.
What did you enjoy about your undergrad scholastically?
I was nervous coming from Belen to the 'big city' of Albuquerque, even though it's pretty close. I was nervous that I couldn't keep up with the other kids who went to Academy, or St. Pius or whatever. I went in with the mentality that this is going to be really hard and I'm going to have to work really hard. That was my sole focus. It was hard, but it was also one of the best times of my life. I got to live in the dorms, make new friends and I met people from India … one of my best friends now I'm graduating with is a refugee from Afghanistan. So learning different cultures, you don't get a lot of that in Belen or Socorro, I was exposed to so many new things that really shaped me and my world view. I also made it a point to study abroad which was awesome. I went to Spain.
What was your experience in Spain like?
It was really cool to be immersed in a new culture and be completely on my own and move far from home. It was my one opportunity to have that experience in undergrad so I'm grateful for it. The main goal was to work on my Spanish because if I want to be a physician here in New Mexico I need to be able to speak Spanish. I lived with a host mom who only spoke Spanish and that's how I learned. Growing up we speak Spanglish. But I had a good foundation hearing it growing up. It really helped me to learn a lot more.
What was the process of getting into medical school like?
It was always my plan. I never really questioned that. I think maybe a little bit when I was living in Spain I was like, I can come live out here. But I knew that wasn't very practical.
It put things in perspective for you then, and that's a good thing.
Definitely. I think it was good for me because I'm kind of stubborn in that when I say I'm going to do something, then I do it. Sometimes it's good, but sometimes it's not so good. It's good to let go of something, but that mentality helped me in med school.
What's your area of expertise that you would like to go in to?
I'm going into internal medicine, which is general adult medicine. So my patients who are in the hospital, those are the patients I would be seeing. COVID patients for example, those are internal medicine patients … the path to get to a critical care doctor, you first have to do internal medicine. That's my field. I really like that population. I really like the relationships I can form with sick people in the hospital, with families and the patients themselves and to be able to translate what's going on. When I was growing up my grandma got really sick and was in the hospital and the doctor was talking, and we didn't know what he was saying. He's using all these big words and we're scared and we didn't really know what's going on. You have to be able to translate what's going on to the families because they're the decision makers. It's not you ultimately. You give them options and what you think is best, but they make the informed decision.
There are so many cliches about being a medical doctor, shows like Scrubs and ER and Grey's Anatomy that fantasize what it's like to actually be a doctor. Are there any parallelisms between that and actual medical school?
Scrubs I think is the best representation of the relationships between doctors, nurses and just kind of the silly things that can happen in the hospital. As far as things like Grey's Anatomy, that's pretty dramatized. It's just mostly drama. And House … I tried to watch an episode of House maybe a few months ago and thought maybe I can keep up with what they're saying. The whole process of how House tries to figure out a problem is not what we use. It kind of ruined the (show) for me.
You are on your way to Portland (Oregon) for you residency. What hospital are you going to, why did you choose that hospital and why did you choose Portland?
I'm going to Oregon Health and Sciences University. I went there because I really liked my interview day. I interviewed at probably 12 places. You kind of have to get a feel for how the program is, and how the attending physicians, which are the supervising physicians interact with the residents. You try to see if there's a good culture there. Of course you want it to be a strong program that has a good reputation and you know you will learn at and you will thrive at and have lots of opportunities. Also, the city itself. I visited Portland a couple of times and I really like it. It's really different than here. It's kind of like me going to Spain. It's my chance to go explore something new and bring what I learn back to New Mexico. Medicine is still an art.
What are your expectations of your time there?
I'm just really going to focus and learn as much as I can. I'm going to be working a lot and working long hours, and I just want to immerse myself in the learning process because I can't get that time back as a supervising physician. There are lives on the line. I'm just going to hunker down and focus on learning as much as I can and taking as many opportunities as I can out there.
What else about going into internal medicine appeals to you?
I really like patients who are at the end of their lives, and I know it's kind of weird to say that, but for me I really learn so much from them at so many different levels and I want to be able to be there as a guide for those patients and their family's because it's a very difficult time. The reality is we are not god. Doctor's are not god, we are human beings. It's an inevitability that death will happen, and for me what's important is that patients have the best possible death. It sounds morbid to sat that; but to have a respectful death that has dignity and choice.
Let's go back to you being able to explain to a family what exactly is happening with a loved one. Is that a sense of comfort for you?
It is because my experience with my grandma, we didn't really know what was going on. She passed away in the ICU and it was a very traumatic death. I had another grandma who had more of a choice and understanding of what was going on. She was able to make those decisions for herself, and her passing was very sad but it had a lot of dignity to it. So I think it's really important that patients understand what's going on. A lot of times in the hospital we're just trying to save lives and extend life. But extending life doesn't mean you have good quality of life. That's really important for me.
You're going into the medical field in maybe the worst time in several generations. How do you expect COVID to affect your life in upcoming months, if not upcoming years?
It's going to be a whole new experience as a resident entering residency. Primarily I'm moving away from home by myself. I don't know anyone out there. But you get to know your residents really well. You hang out with them outside of the hospital. So I think personally those relationships will be harder to build. I worry about burn out. But at work I'll be constantly adjusting to the new protocols that they're expecting us to follow. Everything is rapidly changing ... I don't really know what I'm going into. I'm not so concerned for myself. This is what I'm meant to do.
What do you do in your spare time, and why might the Pacific Northwest be good for you?
The great outdoors, there are so many options there just like here too but it's a little bit different there. It feels different. The weather is different. The people are very different. It's the whole novel experience I'm going to be able to enjoy. That's when you grow, is when you're put into a vulnerable situation. I'm really excited about that.