Erik van Eaton was having a pleasant dinner at Godfather's Pizza in Soldotna when he was gripped by deja vu.
Not only did he feel like he'd been there before, he really had. More than 10 years earlier, van Eaton had sat at the same table, surrounded by other members of the Kodiak High School swim team.
Now, at 30, he's back on the central Kenai Peninsula as a third-year medical student, training at the Peninsula Medical Center in Soldotna.
Van Eaton is the first student to make Soldotna part of his education. He is part of a program known as the University of Washington WRITE site. WRITE stands for Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho Rural Integrated Training Experience. The highly competitive program is to give medical students a feel for what it is like to practice in a small town.
Dr. Katy Sheridan, who practices in Soldotna, initiated the application a year and a half ago to put Soldotna in competition with the Matanuska Valley for the right to host students in Alaska.
"A panel of two of the University of Washington deans ... came up and visited," she said. "Within a week of them coming here, we heard that we had been accepted."
In fact, the turnaround was quicker than usual. Part of what expedited the process was van Eaton. The Alaska site was not scheduled to be available for another year, but he wanted to return to Alaska for his training this spring.
"I was on the phone every other day," he said. "I don't think they would have hurried up the process to get me up here if I hadn't been from Alaska."
Soldotna's certification was hurried, and he got to start in February.
Van Eaton's training differs from the usual medical school experience because he stays with one clinic for six months instead of the more standard six weeks. In that time, he gets to see patients several times and to know them -- a chance he wouldn't have had if he stayed in Seattle.
"It's far more realistic medical training," he said. "Medicine's about seeing patients again and again, knowing the patient from day one."
While the training may be more realistic, it makes gauging his progress as a student more difficult, he said. Since he isn't learning just about one type of medicine -- but rather a lot of different things -- testing is more of a challenge.
To address this, the University of Washington Medical School sends one of its staff up to evaluate van Eaton's progress once a month.
Van Eaton said area doctors have helped make his experience valuable.
"They have a lot to teach," he said.
He said many of his classmates thought he would be missing out on cutting-edge training by coming here.
"'You're going to learn yesterday's medicine,'" he recounted being told. "That is totally not true. I feel I will go back to Seattle ahead of my classmates."
But the area doctors aren't the only ones to help teach him, van Eaton said.
"Patients are really in control of teaching their doctors," he said. "They should really think of it as an empowering experience. (People should think,) 'I'm going to be involved in teaching this person how to do it right.'"
Van Eaton said he gets permission from patients before working with them, and they still are seen by their attending doctor, too. No patient has refused to be seen by him, he said.
He said patients benefit directly from him being able to spend more time talking with and examining them then a doctor usually has.
"This might be my last chance to sit back and have a leisurely conversation with my patients."
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