Young doctor drawn to rural medicine heads for Alaska

Posted: Tuesday, May 20, 2008

BELMONT, Mich. - Sarah Roberts has heard all the jokes comparing her life to that of "Northern Exposure's" Dr. Joel Fleischman.

Yes, she's a med school grad off to Alaska, but similarities to the 1990s TV series end there.

That is, she's from Belmont, a small town just north of Grand Rapids, and she has no desire to be a big-city doc. After having worked in the Rural Physicians Program in the Upper Peninsula for the past two years, she wants to practice medicine in Alaska.

"I interviewed in Anchorage a week before Christmas and was there on the winter solstice. We got to almost see the sun for just a few minutes," said Roberts, 25, who recently graduated from the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine.

"I made a spreadsheet of all the places I could go, and I kept coming back to Alaska. I thought, 'Sarah, you can't do that, that's crazy.' But it kept coming back," said Roberts, a 2000 graduate of Rockford High School.

Perhaps Alaska came to mind because Roberts spent the past two years of med school in Marquette, including two months in Ironwood. She's one of seven graduates from MSU's U.P. program and 103 total from the six medical school locations. Grand Rapids becomes the seventh location, and the headquarters, when medical students begin training there this fall.

"I could not have chosen a better place to train," Roberts said of her work at Marquette General Health System. "The environment totally fostered that I want to work in rural medicine."

And the two months she spent in Ironwood with family physician Jim Hubbard cemented her belief that she, too, wanted to be a family doctor.

"Everybody likes Sarah," Hubbard said. "She's really down-to-earth, and she treats patients like they're people, not just sick things that come in to get medicine."

Patients repeatedly said Roberts was "very professional," recalled Hubbard, who was awarded the Outstanding Volunteer Faculty award during the commencement, thanks to Roberts' nomination.

"That's a big deal. I'm really honored," he said. "But knowing she'll go off and be a great doc in some community is more of a reward."

Nancy Roberts, a registered nurse, also swells with pride when she speaks of her oldest child, in part because Sarah took an interest in a cause championed by her mother: postpartum depression.

Spurred by the suicide of her sister in 1986, Nancy Roberts created Spectrum Health's Postpartum Emotional Support Program. She started a support group in 1993 and began doing risk assessments for new moms in 2005.

Sarah pursued a grant that brought those services to Marquette last year. She even got her mom to do a teleconference for the eight U.P. hospitals that deliver babies.

"Clearly, there was a deficit in our community and the entire U.P. I did a survey of physicians who said they'd love to see support, both for themselves and for new moms," Sarah Roberts said.

Now that she's finished with med school, Roberts is taking some time off before heading to Alaska.

"I sold all my furniture. I sold my car. I had a moving-to-Alaska garage sale. So it's going to be three suitcases, me and my cat," she said.

For a year, she will be an intern at Providence Health & Services in Anchorage, followed by a two-year residency.

And then what?

Maybe she'll stay. Maybe she'll head back to Marquette.

"Medical school has been a great adventure," she said. "But the greatest adventure is yet to come."

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