PHOENIX — Maricopa Medical Center in Phoenix boasts one of the oldest and largest physician training programs in the Southwestern U.S.
More than 1,400 applicants vie for a spot in their residency program every year, but there’s only room to train 400 doctors in 13 different specialties.
One of the most coveted areas is their emergency medicine department. It’s where 42 residents train for three years under the most stressful, pressure-packed life-and-death situations.
Team 12’s Mike Gonzalez spent two nights inside the emergency department at Maricopa Medical Center with residents to see what they go through and why being a part of this program means so much.
Life inside the ER can go from 0 to 100 in a matter of seconds. And for residents, it can be even more stressful, because not only are you trying to save lives, you’re learning how to practice emergency medicine at the same time.
12 News had a chance to follow around Dr. Aaron Johnson, a resident who graduated from Midwestern Medical School in Glendale, Arizona, to find out what he goes through on a daily basis.
For 32-year-old resident Aaron Johnson, there’s no other place he’d rather be.
"It’s a high-stress job where we rapidly evaluate people and get them where they need to go," Johnson said.
The sounds, the seriousness and moving parts—all parts of what attracted Johnson to the Maricopa Medical Center Emergency Department.
It’s a place where Johnson and 41 other young residents spend three years after med school, learning to save lives while armed security guards roam the halls protecting them.
Doctors here deal with everything from the mundane to people coming off of mind-altering drugs.
"I'm only here because doctors think I'm crazy, but it's the meth," said one patient waiting to be discharged.
The only thing is certain: Every night will be different.
"I always wanted to be a doctor. I always admired doctors. Throughout junior high and high school, I never thought I was smart enough to be a doctor. Once I got into undergrad, it was a motivation issue, not an intelligence issue," Johnson said.
The allure of Maricopa Medical Center for residents like Johnson is the multitude and diverse makeup of patients here
"We’re going to see the least privileged. Some of it is economics, some of it is language or cultural barriers. But it gives us a great experience," said Dr. Anthony Krause.
Each one of the 42 residents has their own reason for wanting to practice emergency medicine.
"It’s been a 10-year process. I’m 39. I’ll be turning 40 this year," said Dr. Brant Jaquen, who left a lucrative job in the financial world to start his new career.
Maricopa Medical Center is located in the heart of Phoenix, where the patient population is largely underserved, and knowing Spanish is not a luxury—it’s a life-saving necessity.
Dr. Frank Lovecchio is one the attending doctors.
"¿Cómo está ustéd?" he asks a patient.
He’s a veteran of the emergency department wars. Dr. Lovecchio speaks fluent Spanish and Italian.
"We like to say, 'Every patient every time'".
Dr. Lovecchio says training these young physicians is a balancing act.
"For example, this gentlemen Krause is about four months away from graduating. I’d do an injustice to him if I don’t leave him alone a bit. So, I’m right by his side to make sure he’s in control," said Lovecchio.
Dr. Johnson is a third-year resident who grew up on a small farm in Idaho. After completing his undergrad at BYU, Johnson attended Midwestern Medical School in Glendale. He says the emergency department is the only place he ever wants to be.
It wasn’t long before we had to cut his interview short and see Dr. Johnson in action.
He was called to the ER for a patient with labored breathing—who needed life-saving intervention fast.
"Would you mind talking to the doctor that we need to intubate this patient? Tell him really fast," said Johnson as he raced toward the ER for the patient.
Upon arriving in the ER, to make things even more stressful, a crash victim screams in pain inside the same room.
After about 10 minutes, Dr. Johnson gets his patient to stabilize.
I asked the doctor what happened and he explained:
"This is a gentleman who came in with COPD, he came in complaining of shortness of breath. What we think happened is the CO2 built up in his blood stream where he had to have assisted breathing. But it became so altered mentally that he wasn’t responding appropriately, and that’s we had to intubate him to assist his breathing," said Johnson.
But life in the ER isn’t always this exciting. These young doctors and nurses get an up close look at the realities of medical care in the U.S., where economically disadvantaged patients use the emergency room for primary care.
And those without the money or the means will rarely follow up on recommended care plans.
"Yes, it’s a combination of health education, health literacy, being able to afford your medications, being able to physically get to your doctor’s appointments that you're supposed to have. If I refer you to a specialist and you don't have a car, and it's 10 miles away, what are you going to do?" Dr. Krause said.
"One of the biggest challenges is the language barrier. The biggest one is just determining who’s sick and who’s not sick," said registered nurse Tiffany Wilson.
Solving the health care crisis is one emergency these brilliant young doctors can’t seem to figure out.
As for Dr. Aaron Johnson, his residency will conclude in just a few months. He says he’s excited to start his new full-time job and a somewhat normal life.
"The last 11 years of my life has been dedicated to getting the level of training. I’d like to do some traveling and spend more time with my wife and 8-month-old baby," said Johnson.
Dr. Johnson will be working with Banner Health in their emergency department in the East Valley.