Patrick Montoya, MD, says it was purely by accident that he ended up in the emergency room—as a physician. “I never intended to become a doctor,” he says. “I went to college to play baseball.” But, once he arrived at New Mexico Highlands University, he realized there was more to college than just playing sports.
“It didn’t take long for me to become disillusioned with college athletics. So, I decided I might as well focus on academics,” he recalls. According to Montoya, he had always been a good student and was particularly interested in science. He decided to major in chemistry and minor in biology and mathematics, but still had no clear career goals.
“The idea of becoming a doctor had never really occurred to me. I grew up in a rural area and we were poor–I had never even been a patient,” says the native of Chamita, a small community about 30 miles north of Santa Fe. But, when college friends began applying to medical schools, Montoya thought it might be a good choice for him.
“I loved learning about the human body. It was so intriguing,” he says, adding that he also excelled in the academic areas that would give him an edge on the entrance exams. He was accepted to the UNM School of Medicine, and began four years of intensive study.
While in medical school, Montoya completed a summer training program at Harvard University, and also participated in summer research programs at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the University of Iowa. After earning his MD, he completed a three-year residency at UNM specializing in family medicine.
Like many new doctors, Montoya left medical school with significant debt from student loans. So, he did what many young doctors do—he entered the National Health Service Corps (NHSC), exchanging four years of service for four years of medical school tuition. “I was very fortunate. There was an opening at the Health Centers of Northern New Mexico and I was able to serve in El Rito and Truchas, not far from my home.”
While serving in the NHSC, Montoya practiced family medicine, but during this time, he realized that his real interest was something different. “I was actually more interested in emergency medicine, but at that time, there was no specialty available in the field,” he says.
Determined to work in emergency medicine, Montoya sought out training opportunities and practical experience in emergency rooms. “For awhile, I worked part-time in the ER and the rest of the time in family practice.” Before long, he had completely transitioned to emergency medicine.
Montoya entered the field when it was relatively new, and he remembers how different it was in the beginning. “It was wild—even scary at times,” he says. “There were no standards of care and no one was really a specialist in the field. Doctors from all different fields worked in the ER.”
Fortunately improvements were not far off. According to Montoya, the work of UNM physicians like Paul Roth (now Dean of the UNM School of Medicine) and David Sklar (now Chair of the UNM Department of Emergency Medicine), helped to standardize the practice of emergency medicine and provide specialized training in the field.
“The quality of emergency care has greatly improved,” he says. With more than two decades of emergency medicine practice under his belt, Montoya has seen these changes first hand, and says he knows his decision to specialize in emergency medicine was the right choice for him.
Although he has worked in several emergency rooms around the state, Montoya has spent most of his career at Espanola Hospital. “I like it here. I have a large family and extended family in this area, and it’s a great place to live.”
Montoya also speaks Spanish, which he says is very important in the northern part of the state. “Being bilingual has always been helpful here in the north, especially in the ER. But, I think it’s even more important now than it was 10-15 years ago,” he says. With the large influx of Mexican immigrants moving to northern New Mexico, Montoya says he speaks Spanish to his patients far more frequently than he used to.
Most important, Montoya says, he understands the people who live in Rio Arriba County and the problems they face. “It’s a tough place to deal with,” he says. “It’s a low income area with many problems, most doctors don’t want to come here.” According to Montoya, most of those who do, end up leaving. “The ones that stay, are the ones who came from here to begin with,” he says.
This is a perfect example of why providing opportunities for local people to become physicians is so important to the future health of New Mexico. Communities across the state depend on their friends and neighbors, like Montoya, to keep them healthy. Fortunately for the people of Rio Arriba County, Montoya says he plans to continue serving his community for years to come.