UMHS Class of 2021 graduate Dr. Alexandra Salas Solá matched in Emergency Medicine at Hospital Episcopal San Lucas in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Originally from Lares, Puerto Rico, Dr. Salas Solá is pleased to be returning for residency in her homeland and is ready to make a difference providing medical care to underserved patients on the island.
Dr. Salas Solá thought about becoming a doctor as a child but never seriously considered medicine until she was in college, majoring in chemistry at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez Campus.
“It wasn’t until I dedicated a lot of time to research in the toxicology and oncology fields during my undergraduate studies that I decided to pursue a medical career in which I could interact directly with patients,” she said.
The UMHS Endeavour spoke to Dr. Alexandra Salas Solá about her upcoming residency, her thoughts on Emergency Medicine, her journey through medical school at UMHS and the people who helped her along the way, why she wanted to return to Puerto Rico to help serve the medical needs of others, and more.
Love for Emergency Medicine
Dr. Salas Solá—who starts her residency July 1st—recently attended a small gathering of fellow PGY-1 residents and said they all had a great time together.
“I cannot wait to start working with these amazing doctors. The seven Emergency Medicine PGY-1 positions in Centro Medico Episcopal San Lucas were filled by women, and it is very exciting for me to see more women in medicine and in the emergency medicine field.”
Dr. Salas Solá said there are many reasons why she decided to pursue an Emergency Medicine residency.
“I decided to pursue Emergency Medicine because of the diversity of cases and procedures, the high level of awareness, critical thinking, communication, and the quick response needed to treat patients effectively”, she said. “I also enjoy about Emergency Medicine that you get to practice a little bit of every medical field in a fast-paced environment.”
“I love that no day is the same in the Emergency Room; every day is a surprise. I find joy in the fact that an emergency physician is the first line of care in an emergent case, and you get to counsel and provide support to the patient by educating them on their condition and reassuring when needed.”
Dr. Salas Solá is proud to be coming home to her native Puerto Rico for residency to help provide medical care for patients at a critical time when many doctors have left the island, creating a physician shortage.
“I aspire to advocate for the patients and underserved communities whose only point of medical care may be the emergency department and intend to educate my patients and provide them with community resources when needed,” she said. “I will work hard to cultivate my skills further and expand my knowledge and put it to the service of every patient that I attend.”
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How UMHS helped her succeed
When it was time to apply to medical schools, she had heard great things about UMHS and decided to attend a conference in Puerto Rico, hosted by admissions representatives.
“I had excellent feedback from previous UMHS students and decided to apply after attending the UMHS conference held in San Juan, Puerto Rico. One of the main reasons I decided to attend UMHS was the fact that I would not have many distractions to study such a demanding field. Also, being Puerto Rican, I was searching for Caribbean weather and a location that would made me feel a bit more like home, especially when so many students were also Puerto Rican.”
Dr. Salas Solá especially appreciated the faculty at UMHS.
“All my professors both in St. Kitts and Maine were essential in my career advancement and medical learning. However, I will be forever grateful to Dr. Prakash Mungli, who advised me and provided support in a personal health situation during my second trimester in St. Kitts and whose words of wisdom and encouragement continue to inspire me these days.”
The supportive environment in St. Kitts and in Maine was a huge benefit for Dr. Salas and she is thankful for the many learning experiences she had at UMHS.
"Attending medical school in the Caribbean provided me with the opportunity of getting to know a new place and its culture, and to become more independent,” she said. “Independence and the opportunity it gives you to really discover who you are is a big part of your development as a human being and as a physician. Studying away from home humbled me as I had to learn how to adapt in a place different from what I was used to, and it was so enriching because I became stronger and resilient. These characteristics will be so important for your medical career as you move from one state to the other during clinicals, and the best thing is that change will no longer be as frightening.”
Meeting different types of people at UMHS also enriched her experience.
“I believe that diversity is essential in the development and growth of any educational and professional environment. So, attending a Caribbean school gave me the chance to get to know amazing people from so many different backgrounds, which allowed me to have better rapport and understanding with my patients during clinicals.”
The residency Match experience is different for everyone, but two things helped Dr. Salas Solá prepare.
“I believe that something that probably helped was demonstrating progress throughout my medical education. For example, increasing my Step scores progressively, passing my shelf exams, getting involved in health fairs and community service, and doing clinical rotations in Puerto Rico related to emergency medicine were some of those factors.”
Coping with the academic demands of medical school requires one to find others to study with, and also learning to take time off to clear one’s head and decompress mentally.
“For incoming UMHS students, I would suggest finding a ‘study buddy’ that will keep you motivated and focused throughout your medical studies. It is very important to know that beginning to study hard since day one in medical school will always pay forward as you will feel caught up with material,” she said. “Also, find a hobby to do at least once a week as you need some time for yourself. If you are too tired to the point that you are no longer retaining information, rest. Burnout will only push you backward instead of forward. Although it’s difficult sometimes, sleep. If you eat well, get a day (even a half-day) for yourself, sleep well, and study since the beginning, you are more likely to retain information from class and have less trouble understanding material later on. If you have questions, ask away in class or [take advantage of] the professor’s office hours; they are pro-student and will help you through whatever it is that you feel stuck about.”
Keeping doctors in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico has had an ongoing problem with keeping doctors. Dr. Salas Solá said she believes she is helping give back to Puerto Rico.
“It is true that the exodus of Puerto Rican doctors over the last decade has significantly impacted the health system of Puerto Rico. As a Puerto Rican myself, as someone who graduated from public high school and university, I can serve as an example to the Puerto Rican youth as of what you can do and who you can become if you work hard. By serving the people who saw me grow up and the country that provided me with my roots, my beliefs, and my background, I can inspire others to stay and help the medical system grow bigger and stronger by contributing the skills we have learned in the residency in Puerto Rico.”
Puerto Rico continues to have a large number of Medically Underserved Areas because of the exodus of doctors to the mainland. Dr. Salas Solá hopes that, during her residency, she can be a part of the solution to this problem.
“I aspire to advocate for for patients and underserved communities whose only point of medical care may be the Emergency Department and intend to educate my patients and provide them with community resources when needed. I will work hard to cultivate my skills further and expand my knowledge and put it to the service of every patient that I attend.”
Lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic
Everyone has learned countless lessons from the pandemic, but Dr. Salas Solá said she believes people have more than just an appreciation for doctors now.
“I believe that the public has indeed realized the importance of not only doctors, but scientists, delivery men and women, janitors, healthcare workers and every employee whose work has been essential throughout this COVID-19 pandemic.”
However, being a physician is more important than ever.
“I do indeed believe that this is a crucial time to be a doctor as we have been challenged with a virus we knew nothing about, and have become more and more suited to manage and treat patients,” she said. “As an MS-4 I had the opportunity to work in the Emergency Department during the COVID-19 pandemic and it was inspiring to see how doctors, nurses, technicians, and hospital personnel developed a safer environment for patient management and how they dealt with COVID-19 positive patients to reduce contamination.”
Medical students have gained lots of knowledge about managing crises and the ongoing need to listen to one’s patients.
“I think we have all learned the importance of our career to restore health and manage a crisis. Also, we have become more conscious about the importance of supporting research to create new solutions to unprecedented circumstances. We have also learned the importance of informing patients and listening to their fears and reassuring them when needed. We have certainly become more resilient to changes and more conscious about our compromise to healthcare even when sometimes we will be susceptible to disease. This virus has reminded us the importance of self-care, patient-care and information, and prevention.”
The journey from medical school to residency has not been easy for Dr. Salas Solá, but she urges prospective and current students to stay focused to achieve one’s goals.
“Do not give up even when goals seem too far apart. Your dream will come true if you are willing to work hard for it. When feeling like quitting, remember why you started and where you see yourself in the future. You got this!”
(Top photo): Dr. Alexandra Salas Solá. Photo courtesy of Dr. Salas Solá.
Scott is Director of Digital Content & Alumni Communications Liaison at UMHS and editor of the UMHS Endeavour blog. When he's not writing about UMHS students, faculty, events, public health, alumni and UMHS research, he writes and edits Broadway theater reviews for a website he publishes in New York City, StageZine.com.