Member of the Month: Mary Nguyen, M.D.
Rural doc enjoys caring for multiple generations of families
After earning her undergraduate degrees from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, a medical degree from UTHSC at Houston, and completing a residency with CHRISTUS Santa Rosa, Dr. Mary Nguyen took her state boards and immediately jumped into practicing. Literally. “Once I graduated from residency, I took my boards on a Friday and started work the following Monday.” Nguyen joined Lloyd Van Winkle, M.D., at his practice in Castroville, just west of San Antonio and has been there since. “I’m a country doctor and I love it,” she says.
Now married to Dr. Van Winkle, the couple spends time with his grown children and her 8-year-old son, who is autistic. She credits her support system, especially Van Winkle whom she calls her “rock,” with balancing raising a special needs child and being a full time practicing physician.
Why did you choose family medicine, and what’s your favorite aspect of it? Were you inspired by anyone?
I didn’t like being told I couldn’t do something. When I did my rotations as a medical student and my patient needed to be transferred to ICU, there was an ICU team and I “lost” my patient to the team. If my patient needed a cyst removed, a surgeon was called. If my patient needed allergy meds, an allergist was called. I didn’t like the fact that there wasn’t one doctor overseeing the whole person versus subspecialists “chopping up” a patient into a particular organ system. I like knowing my patients, and not just what’s written in their charts. There are so many aspects of a person that cannot be learned from reading a chart, but can only be learned by taking the time and effort to talk to him or her.
I love rural medicine. I like being able to take care of three to four generations of families. I like taking care of not just coughs and colds but being able to have labs drawn at my office, x-rays taken at my office, and being able to do minor surgery when need be without having to send my patients out to a sub-specialist. I love the philosophy of family medicine and caring for patients as part of a family and not just independent entities.
There are so many people that inspired and continue to inspire me. I got to study under wonderful doctors like Dr. James Martin, Dr. Leah Ray Mabry, and Dr. Diana Ballesteros. They taught me how to be a family physician and not just a doctor. I’m inspired by my partner and husband who works a full day at the office and still takes the time to do inpatient hospice care in addition to his many responsibilities. He tells me about how he helped a hospice patient write letters to her children because she was too weak to do so herself. He tells me how he helps families deal with the unpleasantness of watching a loved one die by drawing from his experience watching his mother die from lymphoma. There are days when he doesn’t come home until 11:30 p.m. and he never complains. He enjoys his work and I can see it every day. In addition, he always makes time for his children and me. I hope I can be as good of a doctor as he is.
What is the most interesting/memorable experience you have had when dealing with a patient?
This is such a difficult question to answer since there are so many wonderful and memorable experiences. There’s one memory of going to see a patient in the hospital and having her great granddaughter recognize me when I walked through the door. She came running to give me a hug and realized that her mom was there as well as her grandmother, and that I take care of all four of them and their families. It is such an honor to be a part of their family and knowing they trust me to put their health in my care. Then there’s the memory of coming to a patient’s bed in the inpatient hospice unit and holding his hand while he passed away then having his family thank me for being there for the whole journey. There’s the phone call I got from a sub-specialist who wanted my patient to go to the ER but she refused because, “she will not do anything unless Dr. Nguyen said it was ok with her.” She told the sub-specialist that I was the only one who listened to her and didn’t give up on her when everyone else did. There are my pediatric patients who get upset because this was mommy’s visit and they didn’t get to see Dr. Nguyen. There are the hospital visits when my patients “mother” me and tell me that I didn’t need to come see them every day since they know I have a special needs child and I should be at home with him. Then are all the little gifts my patients bring me. I work in an underserved area and my patients sometimes have problems making ends meet, yet they never fail to bring me gifts for my birthday and holidays.
What has your experience as a TAFP member been like?
I’ve been involved with TAFP since I was a student. I am grateful for the scholarships that allowed me to attend meetings when I was a student. As a resident I served as the resident chair as well as the resident member on quite a few commission and committees. I’ve also been either an alternate director or director for the Alamo Chapter for the past 14 years and now am a delegate in the new governance model. I’ve served on many commissions and committees and I am always grateful for the fact that the leadership of TAFP is constantly evolving and advocating for family physicians, no matter what kind of practice model we practice in nor what level of training we happen to be at, be it as a student or resident or new physician or an old physician like myself. For example, instead of doing the same thing, the leadership researched a new governance model that would benefit all physicians and increase membership involvement. The staff is extremely knowledgeable and helpful. Having talked to my friends in other specialties, I am grateful to TAFP for the vision, leadership, and work that is done so that I may continue to work in a field I love and take better care of my patients.
What is the most important quality a family physician should have?
How can we attract more medical students to family medicine?
Allow medical students to experience family medicine through clerkships. Encourage them to spend time with family physicians and see not just the quality of family medicine but the enjoyment of it. Go visit the family medicine groups and talk to them about the specialty. Invite them to local chapter meetings and actually bring one with you. It’s intimidating to go to a meeting by yourself. Make it personal.
If you weren’t a doctor what would you be doing with your career?
Teaching. I love learning and teaching. That’s why I love my work. I get to practice family medicine and teach students, residents, and patients every day, in one fashion or another.
Tell me something fun (unrelated to medicine) about yourself.
I’m a rather boring person. I love to read. When I was in elementary school I loved to read so much that my parents put me on reading restriction until the weekends. They thought it odd that I never wanted to go outside to play so they thought this would force me to go play. I was miserable. I think they gave up on that idea within a couple of weeks. I still love to read and will read just about anything. If I find a book that I really like, I will buy extra copies to give away. I also love music and the arts. We have season tickets to the San Antonio symphony and we support local theaters like the Classic Theatre. I love theater, dance, music, art. It’s probably because I have no artistic talent whatsoever!
TAFP’s Member of the Month program highlights Texas family physicians in TAFP News Now and on the TAFP website. We feature a biography and a Q&A with a different TAFP member each month and his or her unique approach to family medicine. If you know an outstanding family physician colleague who you think should be featured as a Member of the Month or if you’d like to tell your own story, nominate yourself or your colleague by contacting TAFP by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (512) 329-8666. View past Members of the Month here.