Twice a year, students from across the region are invited to apply for the Appalachian Regional Healthcare (ARH) Scholars program. The ARH Scholars are awarded a $5,000 academic scholarship to pursue a degree in healthcare. Their stories are unique, but a common thread unites every winner: a desire to make a difference to the people of Appalachia through healthcare. The Fall 2019 class of ARH Scholars included ten talented future healthcare providers, like Montana Blair.
Montana Blair is finishing up her last semester at Alice Lloyd College as a biology pre-med student. She has already been accepted to the University of Pikeville College of Osteopathic Medicine, and is starting classes at UPIKE this summer, with the goal of graduating as a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine in 2024.
Born and raised in Whitesburg, Montana learned the importance of an education from her parents: “Growing up as a coal miner’s daughter, my family and I faced times of financial uncertainty,” Montana says. “I remember my father getting laid-off a number of times throughout my childhood. At that time, my mom stayed at home, but in order to provide a more secure future for her family, she went back to school and pursued her degree in nursing.”
“I’ve always admired my mom for taking that step, but it wasn’t until I had my son at 19 that I could really appreciate her decision,” Montana continues. “I can remember my mom staying up late at night studying after my sister and I were asleep. Now, I’ve had many of those long nights with my own son, managing a full-time course load, part-time employment, and motherhood all at once.” Montana credits her mother’s example of hard work and dedication for inspiring her to pursue her own goals with such intensity.
Having nurses in the family meant that she was always aware of the healthcare industry, but it was when she had knee surgery at age 13 that she really began to think about being a physician. Shortly after that surgery, Montana had the opportunity to attend a summer camp at the Southeast Kentucky Area Health Education Center (AHEC) where, Montana says, her love for medicine really bloomed. She nurtured that burgeoning interest by volunteering in a cuddle care program at a local hospital, where she spent hours comforting babies going through neonatal abstinence syndrome. She also had the opportunity to shadow an orthopedic surgeon, who Montana recalls demonstrating outstanding patient care to a 4th grade patient with an umbilical hernia. “I really admired that doctor’s ability to connect with his patients and their families. I realized that I wanted to have that kind of impact.”
Right now, Montana is hoping to specialize in obstetrics and gynecology. “I feel like women’s health is a field where continuity of care and surgical intervention intersect perfectly. Experiencing motherhood has solidified that desire and given me an outlook that I think will really help my patients.”
Aside from her mother, Montana’s greatest mentor has been Dr. Nathan Wade Baker, an OB-GYN at Whitesburg ARH Hospital. “I’ve shadowed Dr. Baker and spent a lot of time working with him,” she says. “He actually delivered my son. He’s always in my corner, motivating me and reminding me that I can do this, that the path will be hard, but I’m capable and smart, I have what it takes, and I’m persistent. I’m really thankful to have him in my life as my doctor, as my friend, and as my mentor.”
Mentorship is a huge part of Montana’s journey so far, and her ultimate goals, which are two-fold. “After I get my education and training, I really want to bring that knowledge home to the mountains and practice medicine here in my community” Montana says. “But another thing that’s really important to me is mentoring kids from this area, to help them know that they can do the same thing if they want to.”
Montana knows that young people often feel unsure of themselves, especially in rural areas, and she wants to combat that. “Sometimes, coming from a small-town area, we feel like we don’t have the education or the capabilities to go to medical school, or follow our dreams in general,” she says. “Working with AHEC, I want to mentor kids and teach them that they can follow their dreams and go to medical school, even if they are from a small-town area. Growing up in a rural, medically underserved community, my hope is that these kids will be inspired to come back and help their community.”