Grand River’s Dr. Vargas has a passion for helping
Giving a voice to the rural medical community, Dr. Alan-Michael Vargas is driven by the unique needs and challenges people face in rural communities
For Grand River Health family physician Dr. Alan-Michael Vargas, his passion for taking care of people started at a young age.
Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, watching his father take daily injections for his Type 1 Diabetes, Vargas knew at a young age he wanted to help people.
“It was very difficult as a child to understand what that was,” Vargas said. “I remember saying to my dad we have to figure out a way to make you normal. We have to figure out a way to help you, heal you.”
A move to upstate New York when he was 13 started Vargas’ path into the rural family medicine field.
Vargas watched and learned from the local town physician as he treated Vargas and his family. He noticed how the doctor was an integral part of the community, attending events and building connections with residents above and beyond the physician-patient relationship. It was like he was part of the family.
“I had a great family that backed me the entire way, and always told me that you could be what you want, you just have to either have that drive, or passion,” Vargas said. “I think a lot of what pushed me in that direction was that passion for his health. Knowing that this is what I wanted to do.”
FAMILY, FRIENDS AND UNIVERSITY
Vargas attended New York University for a year after graduating high school, but a belief in friendships and family meaning something motivated him to transfer to Fordham University.
“That kind of goes into a little bit of what I’m going to believe in as a physician as well, and why I am part of family medicine,” Vargas said. “There is more to things than just black and white, not only that passion aspect, but that love and family portion are there.”
Vargas didn’t get into medical school his first try after graduating from Fordham, which he said is normal.
“They want you to continue to show that is what you want to do, and continue to push and be part of the research,” Vargas said.
He didn’t take the rejection well, and decided to enroll in St. George’s University medical school, located in Granada.
After he received 18 months of medical education at the university, he returned to the states for the final two years of his education.
“It’s kind of one of those things that most people tell you they go to a Caribbean university, say it wasn’t their first choice, but it did go ahead and give you insight to how other countries go ahead and run their medical system,” Vargas said.
“Learning how to treat with bare minimum support or supplies — that was beautiful training that I don’t think I would have got some place else.”
RETURN TO HIS ROOTS
Vargas returned to the states and finished his training at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York and St. Joseph’s Hospital in New Jersey.
After graduating, Vargas started a residency as a general surgeon at Mount Sinai, which he said was very difficult and time consuming. He was only home for enough time to eat and sleep.
“I was a newlywed at the time — my wife had noted that we weren’t spending time together. It was almost as if she had married a shell. I wasn’t there,” Vargas said.
The talk with his wife rang deep for Vargas and he decided general surgery wasn’t for him. He looked where he could make a mark helping people and decided on family medicine.
“How do I help? How do I serve our community? How do I serve the people that are around us? How do I do the most good?” Vargas said he asked himself.
“Family medicine seemed like a beautiful entrance into that.”
For Vargas, it was a natural transition as family medicine is procedure-based and he treats anything from newborns to geriatrics.
“It’s so gorgeous, being able to keep that large breadth of humanity and just be there for every part,” Vargas said.
Memories of the family doctor in upstate New York resonated with Vargas as his residency came to an end. Vargas knew he didn’t want to work in a major city. He wanted to be in a rural setting.
“I want to be in a place where I can do my greatest good,” Vargas said.
FALLING IN LOVE WITH THE WESTERN SLOPE
Upon graduating residency in 2013, Vargas and his wife, Dr. Bonnie Walsh, who is also a family physician at Grand River Health, had the same realization that they didn’t want to be in New York and he remembered how he loved Colorado.
An avid snowboarder growing up, Vargas competed in pro-am competitions on the East Coast, and in the early 1990s he traveled to Colorado to compete.
Searching for the right rural community, Vargas found Grand River Health Clinic West, and in July 2013 he and his wife found a place in Parachute just blocks from the clinic and started his GRH career.
“Dr. Vargas has worked for us the last seven years, came here right out of residency. To me, he is the epitome of the modern family physician in that he is very technologically savvy,” Grand River Chief Medical Officer and family physician Dr. Kevin Coleman said.
Vargas and his wife have a 2-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son and now live in Glenwood Springs to be closer to snowboarding and skiing.
Vargas still enjoys snowboarding in his spare time, but with his son just learning to ski and his daughter preparing to start lessons next year he is looking to transition.
“I would like to switch to skiing, so I can just cruise around with them on the mountain,” Vargas said.
“Me and my wife, like everyone around here, we use the landscape and beauty around us.”
He has also picked up wood-working as a hobby, designing and building cabinets for the family home.
Nearly seven years into his practice here in western Colorado, Vargas couldn’t be happier with his rural life.
“Being here has been exactly what I wanted, which is still treating everyone at the full scope of what a family medicine physician is,” Vargas said. “My job is to have a breadth of knowledge about everything.”
WINNING FAMILY MEDICINE PHYSICIAN OF THE YEAR
Dr. Coleman nominated Dr. Vargas for Colorado Academy of Family Physicians Family Medicine Physician of the Year back in 2018, but the award went to a doctor in Basalt 2019.
When he found out that he had won the 2020 award he was a bit shocked, not knowing that his original nomination was carried over to the following year.
Coleman said no other doctor at Grand River Health has won the CAFP Family Medicine Physician of the Year award.
“This award is not for me — this award shows what we are doing as an institution, and also shows teamwork I get from my medical assistant, fellow physicians, nursing staff,” Vargas said.
“This is our award, without them I wouldn’t be able to do anything I do, I would still have the passion, and still find a way to do it — putting the right people together is what makes it work.”
Vargas is active with the Colorado Academy of Family physicians, and the chair for the Colorado Rural Health Center.
“Above and beyond that he just takes excellent care of patients, always has. His outcomes are very good, patients know that he cares about them when they are seen by him in the office,” Coleman said.
He has been a strong advocate for rural health policy and bringing better access to health care for rural residents throughout his career.
Coleman said the reality of being a family physician in a more rural environment without certain specialists at your beck and call is difficult. There is a lot more problem-solving without the help of the specialty services.
“I know Dr. Vargas has taken a special interest in rheumatology, and actually almost subs as a rheumatologist for a lot of his practice partners at primary care medicine, just because it is hard to find a rheumatologist that has openings in their clinic,” Coleman said.
“We can talk about treating a single patient, but we are talking about treating the entire community, treating all Coloradoans appropriately,” Vargas said. “It’s not me that matters, it’s the people I treat. It’s the community I serve. What matters is not my opinion, but what the patient is going through and how he can help them through it.”
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