Emmanuel Vergara, PharmD
Photography by Christopher Smith

Making the Grade

Desert Companion

Recent medical and nursing school graduates reflect on their education, their new careers, and their future aspirations

The Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine graduated its charter class in May, bestowing MD degrees on 50 newly minted medical professionals. Meanwhile, other valley medical education institutions, from Roseman University to the CSN School of Nursing, graduated new classes as well. We spoke to a handful of recent graduates about their sometimes-winding paths in pursuit of healthcare careers, the highs and lows of their academic experience, and their advice to future nursing and medical students.

Their stories are unique, and yet they share some interesting commonalities, the most striking of which is how life often took them on several detours before they finally found their career groove. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Emmanuel Vergara, PharmD

Doctorate in Pharmacy, Roseman University

Graduated May 2021

The seed of Emmanuel Vergara’s dream to be a pharmacist was planted at Rancho High School, where he took a pharmacy elective in the school’s medical magnet program. The Las Vegas native grew up acting as a Spanish-English translator for his immigrant parents and knew the value of this skill in situations like paying bills — and talking to healthcare providers.

I had to get my prerequisites for Roseman at UNLV, and I applied for a pharmacy technician job at CVS. That’s when I realized it’s something I really enjoyed. Perhaps the moment that made me realize this is my calling was an instance where the pharmacist was counseling a Spanish-speaking father on how to give his daughter antibiotics. Two to three bottles was supposed to last her 10 days. The pharmacist asked him if he understood. I saw that he kind of didn’t, so I offered to the pharmacist, “Is it okay if I help you translate?” She said, “Sure, we can always use an extra helping hand.” So, I asked him before translating if he understood what the pharmacist meant. He said, “Yeah, I give my daughter a bottle a day, right?” And I’m like, “No, no, no.” And I explained the correct directions to him with the pharmacist’s help.

Roseman’s accelerated pharmacy program is intense — cramming what normally takes four years into three — but Vergara said the school balances this with a social, supportive environment.

What helped us get through it is that they also assigned us to teams. Your exam is broken up into two parts: the first part is individual; the second part you take as a team. So, one of the cornerstones is collaborative effort. In healthcare, you’re gonna be working with people constantly. You’re gonna be working with nurses, you’re going to be communicating with doctors’ offices. In my very first year, my team that I was assigned with was my support group. They were my closest friends. I still get in touch with them till this day. We go everywhere with each other.

The pandemic robbed Vergara of much more than just the in-person aspect of his education. Last year, he did a clinical rotation in a hospital ICU.

In the ICU, we had so many COVID patients, so it was a scary environment. However, I’m mostly in community pharmacy, which is what people typically know, but you also have pharmacies in the hospital, and I thought that would be a unique perspective to help me. And I did learn a lot there. A few months after my rotation, my grandfather had to be admitted to the ICU at a different hospital with COVID. One of my cousins was the point of contact between the family and the hospital. There was a miscommunication, and I said, you know what, I’m going to be the point of contact to help translate the information from the hospital to my family. And I asked the hospital, “What are my grandfather’s ventilation settings? What medications is he taking? What side effects is he having?” And I was able to relay that information to my family and answer any questions they had. I was very fortunate to have had the rotation at the ICU, so I could help with my grandfather. He was our No. 1 supporter. Unfortunately, he passed three months before my graduation. He went to my high school and college graduation and was just short of seeing me be the first person in our family to earn a doctorate degree.

Vergara is looking forward to a future of building relationships with his patients.

I can’t wait to be that trusted pharmacist in the community, wherever I’m at. I can’t wait to get to know my team. During my experiences as a technician, my pharmacy manager at the time, she would always talk to the patients one-on-one, help them with their personal issues. And I really admire that. To do that with my Spanish-speaking patients — I just can’t wait, so I can help the health of my community as a whole. HK


Faun Botor, MD

Doctor of Medicine, Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine

Graduated May 2021

Faun Botor

From an early age, Faun Botor knew she wanted to work in healthcare — but she didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do. It took her some time to devise a career path that could account for her interest in maternal health, addiction issues, and mental wellness in the disability community. The answer: psychiatry. She began her residency at UMC and the Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital in July.

I figured out I wanted to be a doctor when I was in my early teen years. My mom was in the hospital due to complications from alcoholism. And I loved being in the hospital! I loved being around the nurses and listening to the doctors talk, even the smell of the hospital and the hospital food, which sounds weird, because everyone hates it. I just loved it. So I knew I wanted to be a doctor. I worked toward that in high school, graduating valedictorian, things like that. And then once I got to college, I kind of fell off that path.

But then later on, I became an ultrasound tech. I did ultrasound for six years. I did high-risk pregnancies and fetal echoes. And then my first son, in 2014, he had to have surgery at 18 months old. I remember just being so afraid as a parent — my first kid going in for his first surgery, so nervous even though it was a small procedure. His surgeon came and sat down on the gurney with us and explained everything, and made me feel so calm and so confident in her abilities to take care of my son, that I was like, “That’s what I want to do.” Not that I want to be a surgeon, but I want to be there for my patients and be able to do what she did for me for others. That reignited my desire to go to medical school.

It wasn’t until she was doing clinical rotations as a student that she realized that psychiatry was her calling.

Originally, I wanted to go into obstetrics; just because of my background in ultrasound, I have a lot of knowledge in OB. Then I did my first rotation in OB, and I hated it. You only got to see patients for a few minutes. Even with laboring patients, you were only in and out of the room really quickly. There wasn’t that good connection that I wanted, there wasn’t that time to spend with them that I wanted. So when I went searching for a specialty that would give that to me, I found that in psychiatry. You spend a lot of time with your patients. I mean, it’s all talking, really. And I really enjoyed that.

I feel like it’s kind of been a long time coming. So, both my parents died from addiction. My oldest son has autism. So I’ve been part of the disability world and the neuro/psych world for a while, and just things like that, that kind of drew me later on to psychiatry.

But even her brief tenure working in OB influenced her specific psychiatric focus.

It’s early in my career, but I’m thinking about doing a combination of maternal mental health — coming from that OB world, I do still enjoy those patients. We have a lot of addiction issues and things like that in that population. I’m also interested in child and adolescent psychiatry. So I want to be able to help the autism community, even if it’s just getting kids diagnosed and into services earlier, because we have a really long waitlist for kids to just even see a physician that can diagnose them.

Her advice to aspiring doctors and nurses: It’s okay — and perhaps even advantageous — to be a nontraditional student.

I came from a background that was very different from a lot of my cohort. Both my parents died from addiction; we were very poor. I was very lucky that my aunt adopted me as a teenager and gave me some opportunities. But, you know, I paid my own way through undergrad with scholarships, and working sometimes three jobs at a time. So I would tell people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds not to give up on that journey or that pursuit of medicine. There are universities such as UNLV that really do take into account life experiences and other qualities that you can bring to the table other than just, say, a high MCAT score, or a 4.0 GPA in your undergrad. I would say, don’t give up, do your best, and search out medical schools that will appreciate what you bring to the table in your own unique way.

Finally: New doctors, consider staying in Nevada.

I plan on staying in Las Vegas. As my career goes forward, and as I practice medicine, that was important to me. UNLV starting the medical school was a big step — but also offering quality residency positions in Las Vegas is also a big thing. That’s important to keeping physicians in the Las Vegas Valley going forward. AK


Monisha Wilson, RN

Associate of Applied Science in Nursing, CSN Nursing Program

Graduated May 2021

Monisha Wilson gave birth to twin girls in September 2015, two months ahead of her due date. While her newborns were being cared for in the Summerlin Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, Wilson’s medical education began: In casual conversations, the Summerlin NICU nurses encouraged Wilson to rekindle her ambition to become a nurse. You see, Wilson had had a few false starts before …

When I was in high school back in Maryland — where I’m originally from — I joined the LPN (licensed practical nurse) program, just because my friend was doing it. I’m like, okay, you know, I’ll try it. To be honest, I wasn’t very passionate about it back then. Because I was just doing it because my friend wanted to do it. And so back then, I tried to do the science classes — we had to do biology 101, and microbiology and anatomy and physiology and all that. And I didn’t even get to the first test! I was so scared. I didn’t believe in myself. Again, I wasn’t really doing it for me.

In 2015, when my twins were in the NICU because I had them two months early, I was around those nurses at Summerlin Hospital all the time. I was supposed to be on bed rest for two months, but I ended up delivering them after a week on bed rest. But it was almost a blessing in disguise, because since they were in the NICU, I was able to be around these nurses, and I told them my story about how I want to do nursing because I love caring for people, I’m a people person, I love the variety, the flexibility of the career. And so the nurses said, “Why don’t you just go for it? Don’t be scared of the science classes!” Because of those nurses, and also just watching them take care of my kids, that really pushed me.

When Wilson enrolled in CSN’s nursing program, she returned to school with a renewed focus, serious intent — and a positive attitude.

Having a positive attitude and mindset is key. My husband jokes that it’s cliché, but this is really how I live my life. I have a vision board where I write out my goals, and it’s really amazing. It’s not magic by any means. But when you focus on what you want, and you write it down, and you read that board every day — because of that, I made a plan. So I would say to anybody that’s thinking about medical school or nursing school, believe in yourself!

In the harried, high-pressure environment of nursing school, Wilson discovered that being able to ask for help is as valuable as hard work.

I’m not like the typical nursing or medical student where they’re super smart, straight As, had a great college career because their parents put them in the best schools. I went to a regular public school, I got As, Bs, and Cs. And I always tell people about that because I still got into the program. It’s very competitive to get in CSN. We joke that CSN is the Harvard of nursing schools! Just the TEAS (Test of Essential Academic Skills) alone is competitive. But I still made it, and that’s because of my mindset. And I put in the work with sciences. I knew that wasn’t my strongest suit. So I did tutoring, I did study groups, I did whatever I had to do to make it through even when I got in the nursing program.

If you see the smartest kid in the class, reach out! I actually did that. I saw a student who was getting straight As all the time, and I said, “Can I study with you?”

Her determination paid off. After graduation, Wilson received a job offer in the nursing float pool at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. She accepted and began work July 1.

I’m just like, “Oh my God, little old me?! I got a job at Johns Hopkins?” They’re the No. 3 hospital in the world! And a normal person like me got in. One thing I was discouraged about (in the nursing program) was that I had to work, so I couldn’t do extracurriculars, I couldn’t do Student Nurses Association, or any of the other extra stuff. And I still got into a prestigious job. I like to think that’s because of my drive and my determination, and because I really did try my best.

One issue that concerns Wilson in the healthcare landscape is maintaining a reasonable ratio of nurses to patients for optimal care. She dealt with that issue while working as a certified nursing assistant in Nevada hospitals.

The ratios are something that concerns me. For example, the nurses that work medical/surgical (assignment) in Nevada hospitals, they can have upward of six to seven patients each. I’ve heard that at some of the HCA Healthcare hospitals like Sunrise, they could have up to nine patients each. When you think about it, as a nurse, you have to do a lot of charting on those patients. You have to watch them and make sure they’re okay, you’ve got to give out their medications or change their wound dressings. That’s a lot of patients. In comparison, when I go to Johns Hopkins, their medical/surgical nurse-to-patient ratio is one to four. So to go from one to seven, or maybe nine, to one to four — I’m like, wow, that is doable. I can really take care of my patients, I can get to know them. That’s not any fault of Nevada. I hear about that all over about the ratios. I guess we have to churn out more nurses from the nursing schools! AK


Dustin Johnson, RN

Bachelor of Science in Nursing, Nevada State College

Graduated May 2021

Dustin Johnson, RNInspiration can strike in unusual places. Dustin Johnson got his first brush with a career in healthcare when he was an Eldorado High School student working at a valley Kmart. One of Johnson’s fellow Kmart employees worked a second job as a nurse at what was then Lake Mead Hospital (now North Vista); Johnson was intrigued. It wasn’t long before Johnson was volunteering at the hospital and then taking certified nursing assistant courses at CSN.

In my sophomore year of high school, I went through some mental-health issues, and that co-worker at Kmart was really that mentor who took me under his wing. He said, “Why don’t you look at nursing? It’s really rewarding.” That was the big push for me.

I’m very much an interactive person. I always try to make the room smile. I wouldn’t say I’m a jokester, but when somebody is hurting, physically, emotionally, whatever it may be, I tend to have a knack for breaking the ice, getting them to talk, and kind of take the pressure off them a little bit. It’s always been a little niche of mine. I love conversing with people, I love helping people, I love being there for the families, understanding the pathophysiology of stuff and explaining it to people.

But life is what happens when you’re making other plans. After graduating high school, Johnson got married, had a child, joined the Marines, got divorced, and worked as a corrections officer and credit analyst.

However, he hadn’t let go of his medical career aspirations. In 2017, at the age of 39, the Marine Corps veteran enrolled in Nevada State College’s School of Nursing. He recently accepted a job in the cardiac medical/surgical unit at MountainView Hospital — where his wife is also an RN. Johnson hopes to hold on to the sense of engaged compassion that stirred his early aspirations.

That’s very much a quality I feel is missing in a lot of nursing. My wife’s been a nurse for 20 some-odd years. And when her and I first met, she kind of had a hardcore attitude; she worked in the ER, she worked in the pediatric intensive care unit as well. I had to tell her, “Hey, have some compassion, have some understanding.” Working in that type of environment for so long, and dealing with some of the patients that you deal with can kind of break you down a bit. I think sometimes we just gotta step back and remember that we do this for a reason. I hope that throughout my years in nursing I can keep that in the forefront and keep that part of my day-to-day routine.

If he had to do his nursing education all over again, he’d ask for some small improvements to the experience.

One thing I would like to see — and this isn’t so much in the hands of the program and more in the hands of the hospitals — is improved clinical rotations. The first three semesters when we go to our clinical rotations, a lot of the times we’re just kind of used as extra hands, not really being taught anything, changing beds, cleaning people up, bed/bath type of things, when it should really be a learning experience. I feel a lot of people missed out because of that.

Advice for future students: Take it easy once in a while.

Our school is very big on self-care — you know, taking time for your mental well-being. That’s not something I really did a lot of during nursing school. I’m the person who’s always, “Let’s study, study, study!” And if I’m out doing something I enjoy, I feel guilty! My words of wisdom would be to give yourself some self-care. Form those friendships, those bonds with your peers, and have an outlet to let some of the anger, the sadness, the depression out. AK

Allison Boynton, DO

Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, Touro University

Graduated May 2021

A week before sitting down to talk to Desert Companion, Allison Boynton became an ER resident physician at Sunrise Hospital, completing her long-held plan to become a doctor and help people. And already, she was thinking about her next goal, inspired by volunteer work she and other Touro students did during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this last year, being involved with the Isolation and Quarantine Complex at Cashman  Center kind of sparked some additional interests, disaster medicine being one of them. And then taking a couple of short courses, it’s kind of furthered my interest in this area of, how do we approach disasters — like a pandemic or a mass shooting or natural disasters — from the medical standpoint. In the hospital, how do we prepare for those situations, react, and respond? That’s somewhere I could see myself going in the future. Right now, as a first-year resident, I’m just focused on learning the ER, and how to take care of patients there. But that’s kind of a direction I could see myself going in the future.

She picked emergency medicine as her specialty because of the work’s pace and diversity. But there’s a story she wants to hold onto as her career progresses, a reminder of how scary the ER is for people who don’t work there.

While I was on my rotation at Mountain-View Hospital, auditioning for their residency program, we had this patient in the waiting room. This is, again, in the middle of COVID, so visitors aren’t allowed back in the ER; patients had to come back on their own. And so, this woman was in the waiting room, and she was really upset. We’re trying to get her to come back, and she is just refusing. She’s freaking out. She doesn’t want to come back unless her daughter can come with her. And she starts having a panic attack, essentially. As the medical student, I had a little more time than the resident physicians, so I just spent some time with her. I talked to her, tried to figure out why she was scared. And it turned out she’d had a bad experience with a doctor there before. I just sat and listened to what she was scared about, reassured her, walked back physically with her through the whole process, and helped make sure that she actually ended up getting seen and cared for. She ended up being fine. She was discharged home.

Boynton was relieved to complete the process of getting a residency, which she describes as extremely intense and expensive. And she got her first choice in Las Vegas, a place the Richland, Washington, native has grown to love. But with the stress of it all still fresh in her mind, she has some ideas about how to improve American medical education — starting with the cost.

Medical school is extremely expensive. People have kind of accepted that because we know, as doctors, we’re going to make a decent salary. But before we can get there, we come out of school with $300,000, $400,000 worth of student loans. Most people don’t have any sort of help in medical school. So, 100 percent of that is typically loans. It takes a lot of time to make that up, even on a good salary. It can be very discouraging, and you really have to want to go into medicine to get past that. And I think it kind of ties into the whole healthcare system, too, the need to find a balance there. There’s a lot of talk right now about universal health care for all, free health care. And in order to do that, we also need to revamp the medical education process, and make that more affordable.

I’m happy with where I’m at. I wouldn’t change any of my choices, but I think there’s a lot we could do to make it better.

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