Vegas News

UNLV med school celebrates first graduating class; many to stay in Nevada

Wade Vandervort

Students attend the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine Commencement & Academic Hooding Ceremony at UNLV, Friday, May 7, 2021.

When they stepped onto campus for their first courses four years ago, members of the Class of 2021 at UNLV’s School of Medicine took a pledge.

“On my honor, I take this oath with great reverence as I embark on my lifelong journey as a physician,” began the oath, written by the students. “I am privileged to be a member of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, School of Medicine Inaugural Class and commit myself to the medical profession before those who have supported me and made this moment possible.”

Then, on Friday, another moment, the biggest one: graduation.

Dr. Sam Parrish, a founding senior associate dean and a pediatrician, said the cohort reflected the school’s hopes and dreams.

“You weren’t the first class,” he said, his voice quivering slightly, “you’re first class.”

The just-named Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV produced 50 newly minted physicians, all of whom attended tuition-free thanks to donors. One was Las Vegas native Toyokazu “Chris” Endo, who served as class president all four years. 

“When I heard that UNLV was building a medical school, I thought to myself — finally,” he said. “It was an honor to be part of the inaugural class, and I witnessed firsthand that this will be a start to establish a true medical community here at home.”

Las Vegas wouldn’t have become home were it not for his grandmother, he told the audience in a heartfelt and intensely personal anecdote.

One residency interviewer asked him who he was. He said he was the product of sacrifice.

His grandmother was born in what would become North Korea and lost much of her family in the Korean War. She fled to the south, and later, with her daughter, immigrated to the United States. She landed in Vegas and worked as a maid at the Riviera, and raised Endo when his mother was deported.

She most wanted to see her grandson graduate, but died five months ago.

When sacrificing something precious, Endo said, you’re not losing it but passing it on to someone else. It’s an act of humility and love. The graduates’ families made sacrifices, and in their studies, so did they. 

“I urge you all to continue sacrificing,” he said. “Take the extra mile to sit down and talk to your patients. Take a moment out of your busy day to thank your loved ones. In the world that we live in, sacrificing is the only way for us to keep loving and to pass it on.”

Lauren Hollifield and her husband, Damien Medrano, were the class’s only married couple. They met right before the start of their freshman year at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, then followed each other to Drexel University in Philadelphia for master’s degrees in biochemistry and pharmacology, then to Hollifield’s hometown for medical degrees. Now they’re both going to the University of Pennsylvania for their residencies, hers in anesthesiology and his in radiology.

Programs exist for taking committed couples as teams into residency programs, but couples who have been with each other every step of the way are less common, Hollifield said.

A Bishop Gorman graduate, Hollifield said she entered college not knowing she would become a doctor, though her father is an ophthalmologist and her mother has a doctorate in public health. ”People often say that it was preordained to go into medicine,” she said.

“This is the very definition of success,” the result of preparation and opportunity, her mother, Dr. Charlene Day, said with pride.

Melody Rose, chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education, told the graduates that Nevada, which ranks lowest in the country for doctors per capita, needs them now more than ever, and she hoped they’d stay. 

While the young doctors are going across the country for their residencies, 12 are staying local and working with the next generation at UNLV’s medical school. Another two are joining other Nevada health systems. And much of the class already had roots here. About half of the class attended UNLV or UNR for their undergraduate studies.

As fresh students looking to the future, they pledged to treat patients holistically and as human beings, to raise the level of knowledge and advocacy for their communities, to uphold integrity among their peers and be kind, caring and adaptive with themselves, and maintain their passion.

The class had a new oath to swear Friday. Dr. Johan Bester, a professor of bioethics, led the class in a modern Hippocratic Oath that has been in circulation since the 1960s. He instructed them to turn toward the audience in the Thomas & Mack Center, as they were the community who the new physicians would serve, and repeat: 

“I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.” 

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