May 2, 2008 -- By Jean Arthur
Twenty students paddle the Madison River, splattering droplets of icy water among the rental rafts. Someone procures a bucket, douses boaters and tosses a few orange life-jacketed students into the spring runoff. Paddles become splash weapons, and all-out water wars leave no one dry.
At the helm sits Linda Hyman, who directs the splashing and the students during their medical school careers. On a May afternoon, Hyman's normally well-coiffed ebony hair and blouse drip river water. And the normally highly focused students soak in both the spring sunshine and the chance to have some fun as they journey through medical school in MSU's WWAMI program, a cooperative program of the University of Washington School of Medicine and the states of Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho, which lack stand-alone medical schools. Montana's WWAMI medical students spend their first year on the MSU campus before continuing at the University of Washington.
As MSU's Vice Provost for the Division of Health Sciences, and the head of the Montana WWAMI Medical Education Program, Hyman leads the med students down a river to their chosen profession. Just as the students' route to medical school follows sometimes challenging currents, her career and arrival at MSU in 2004 has not followed a predictable path.
Born on a failing chicken farm in 1956, Hyman's earliest memories focus on a one-bedroom apartment and gritty New York streets where her parents retreated after the farm failed. Yet it was those hardships upon which Hyman honed skills to balance her empathy, enthusiasm and drive to expand and perfect the WWAMI program.
Both of Hyman's parents fled their native Poland during Nazi invasions of World War II. Her mother survived a series of Hitler's concentrations camps, including Auschwitz and Buchenwald, before coming to the U.S. Hyman's father, Joe, who escaped to Cuba at age 11, then America, stitched together an immigrant's livelihood in New York's garment district as a tailor. He died when Hyman was 16 years old.
"As children of (Holocaust) survivors, (there is) a sense of burden and responsibility," says Hyman of her background.
Hers is a complicated persona, Hyman admits. She could be cynical, or hard or pessimistic, yet because of hardships or despite them, neither Hyman nor her Florida-retiree mother chose that course.
"My mom is the most patriotic person I know," says Hyman. "She credits America with providing her the opportunity to educate my brother and me. In one generation, she's gone from losing everything to having her children go to grad school, and grandchildren, my nieces and nephew, graduate from Dartmouth, Vassar and American University."
While attending college at State University of New York, Hyman "caught the biology bug," ultimately completing a doctorate in molecular biology at Brandeis University. Hyman then taught and conducted research in molecular biology and the biochemistry of the genome at Tulane University in New Orleans, until arriving in Bozeman to lead the WWAMI program as its first woman and first non-physician director.
With equal parts compassion, fervor and resourcefulness, Hyman connects with students, often underprivileged themselves and from medically underserved communities. She finds them extremely capable if given opportunities.
"I completed some of my rotations in Montana," says Missoula native Cameron Phillips, currently in his third year of medical school in Seattle. "WWAMI is a tremendous deal for Montana students. We attend University of Washington, ranked by U.S. News and World Report as the best primary care for a medical school for the past 14 years, yet we pay in-state (tuition) -- it's a gift. I'll always feel indebted to WWAMI. And then to practice in our hometown or state is just icing on the cake."
"Linda maintains special relationships with the students," says Dr. Jay Erickson, a Whitefish physician and WWAMI's assistant dean of clinical affairs. He commends Hyman for providing more rural opportunities for Montana medical students that help the students become primary care physicians rather than specialists.
Hyman and Erickson collaborated to make changes in the WWAMI program.
"We looked at the needs of the state, current and projected, and found that it's the rural areas where there's the greatest need," Erickson says, adding that Hyman recognized that students from rural areas were more likely to commit to rural health careers.
Admittedly, that's been one of Hyman's biggest challenges.
"Our students are so idealistic and so excited about being physicians, serving the underserved, helping people," she says. "Then at the end of the pipeline, it's frustrating. Students all of a sudden have questions of income and lifestyle in rural communities. We want them to maintain the idealism, their reasons for wanting to help people and discover or rediscover rural Montana."
So she created more opportunities for WWAMI students to train in small communities. In the past, the students spent one year at MSU then three at the University of Washington. Beginning this year, Montana's students spend their second year in Seattle, but have the option of completing third and fourth years of medical school in Billings or Missoula.
And it's been Hyman's zeal for the WWAMI program that has helped secure more state support for loan repayment to physicians who choose to practice in the most underserved areas of Montana. The Montana Rural Physicians Incentive Program now offers loan repayment of up to $100,000, up from $45,000 -- Montana students incur about $110,000 in debt by the end of med school.
A huge Montana map covers most of a wall in her office. There are the rivers she's floated, the streams she's fished, trails hiked with her golden retriever, Jake, but more importantly, the map reveals small towns where she and her husband Rick Baricos, a retired biochemist and pilot, have flown in their Cherokee 140, investigating rural Montana "for our summer vacation," she says. "We visit our students in Glasgow, Fort Peck and other small towns."
As she calculates the state's return on investment in students, she can show that 55 percent of Montana's WWAMI graduates practice medicine in state. She looks forward to the 2009 legislative session as a platform to present program expansion by adding funding for more students. If that weren't enough, she maintains a yeast genetics lab on campus in which her team investigates how cells adapt to microgravity in space.
And she calculates just how chilly the Madison River is likely to be in May with the next generation of WWAMI students.