By Mardi Taylor
Some doctors came to Mercy’s smaller communities intending to stay only three years, long enough to fulfill a U.S. residency requirement. But despite their short-term plans, many embraced the smaller, rural communities they serve, and their communities, in turn, embraced them.
“I was supposed to stay here three years, and then I could go anywhere, but I chose to stay,” said Dr. Michael Miranda, a native of the Philippines and a Mercy Clinic physician in Booneville, Arkansas. “The plan was always to seek out a place more like home, but this has become home. We were foreigners, and now we’re part of this community.”
Dr. Miranda isn’t alone. Many of Mercy’s doctors born outside the U.S. start out at Ivy League schools or in big cities on either coast. Often, they agree to practice in an underserved community for a short stint as a part of the requirement for obtaining U.S. citizenship. While they could easily pack up and return to a big city, many fall in love with the people and places they serve and set up households in smalltown America.
Dr. Areeb Bangash, medical director and hospitalist at Mercy Hospital Ada in Oklahoma, was born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan, with a population of about 20 million. He came to the U.S. for his internship, and after completing his residency in New Jersey, he started looking around the country for jobs in rural areas. He interviewed in several states but ultimately decided on Ada.
“The people were amazing and warm,” said Dr. Bangash. “There was a clear difference in Oklahoma from all the other places I visited. Everyone here was so welcoming. Oklahoma has been a breath of fresh air.”
Dr. Bangash said his first exposure to America was “big-city life on the East Coast, where it was hard and fast paced.
“I worked at big institutions where I was just a number or a name on a board. But in Oklahoma, people actually slow down, spend time with you and want to talk. It’s very community- and family-oriented in many ways,” he said.
Dr. Syed Hamid, who also grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, now serves patients in some of the smallest towns in Arkansas – Booneville, population 3,647; Ozark, 3,618 and Paris, 3,532. Almost 17 years ago, he made the move from Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, where he completed medical school.
“Right from day one, I never felt alienated here,” said Dr. Hamid. “At Harvard, when my colleagues found out I was moving to Arkansas to practice, they were shocked. But I have only experienced wonderful people here in Arkansas. This is my home. This is where I have raised my family. This is where I choose to practice medicine. It’s the family-oriented atmosphere and the acceptance from the community that made me decide to stay all those years ago.”
For communities hit hard by an ongoing physician shortage, the COVID pandemic and other health care issues, the relationship between physicians and patients in rural areas is especially vital. Dr. Miranda acknowledged this when he embraced life in Booneville more than 20 years ago.
“Of course, we didn’t have any family here,” he said. “We got ‘adopted’ into a local family, and they were there for the birth of our two kids. My kids are closer to our adopted ‘aunts and uncles’ here than they are to blood relatives in the Philippines.”
Dr. Mirfat “Mimi” Bird, a Mercy internal medicine specialist, found herself in Ozark, Arkansas, after living in many different parts of the world. Born to a Middle Eastern father and European mother, it was Dr. Bird’s father who pushed her into medical school.
Living in a small community has deep meaning for Dr. Bird. She joined the Mercy team seven years ago and joked that Ozark has “around 5,000 people, and I know 4,000 of them.” It’s not unusual for Dr. Bird to bump into her patients around town, including at the grocery store – a place where she’s less Dr. Bird and more “Mama” Bird.
“It’s your relationship with the patients,” she explained. “When you treat somebody, you don’t only listen to their medical problem, you listen to their social problem. Then, next thing you know, I’m seeing the mother, the father, the kids. For me, it’s a whole family.”