In 2004, Payson High School seniors, Alex Vlahopoulos and his future wife, Lauren Bartoli, were headed to University of Arizona for careers in the medical field. Although they both received substantial university scholarships, those scholarships did not cover room and board—which was still expensive. To help with those expenses, Alex received an MHA Human Health career scholarship for $500. “The MHA scholarship helped so much. I had no resources at the time, so it was a huge help!”
Today, they are giving back by caring for patients in their hometown of Payson. Alex Vlahopoulos is now a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) and works as an emergency medicine physician and director at Banner Payson Medical Center Emergency Department. Lauren Vlahopoulos also has her doctorate degree Doctor of Pharmacy, or PharmD and is a pharmacist at the Payson Safeway. After living in Iowa and Michigan and starting a family of their own, being close to family is part of what brought them back to Payson in 2018. “It seems everyone gravitates back to home” stated Lauren. Lauren and Alex agreed, “Our mentality is that this is our community of Payson… these are our people, these are our patients, this is our place! We had the opportunity to live and work anywhere, and we made a choice to come back here.” There are many reasons why they like practicing rural medicine in Payson. Dr. Vlahopoulos works with many of the people that he knew when he was younger.
He shared, “As a doctor in a rural setting, I get to do a lot of procedures (which I love); I don’t have the luxury of calling on a handful of specialists for each individual task, as can be found in an urban setting. Although it may be more difficult initially to master a wide variety of procedures, it is much more gratifying because of that variety. In our Payson ER, there is one physician at a time. If there is a bus accident involving 30 people, it is all on that single physician. Rural locations also present special challenges for staffing. For example, when we had the massive snowstorm back in February (36 inches in 36 hours), all the other ER physicians live out of town, so they could not get to Payson to work their shifts. Thankfully, Dr. Judith Hunt was able to assist me in covering the emergency department.
She is an example of how we all row the boat together—we all help each other out! Living in a rural community, you also have a much greater ability to influence. I can contact the patient’s physician to follow-up because I know that physician personally and I know the patient will receive good follow-up, so I can safely discharge the patient.” Dr. Vlahopoulos especially likes the staff at Banner, stating, “CEO Lance Porter is integral in making sure that patient care (rather than administrative endpoints) is a priority at Banner Payson.”
One of the reasons why Lauren likes being a pharmacist in Payson is “being able to care for people where they are, so they do not have to go down the hill to Phoenix. Pharmacy wise, there are not a lot of differences, but we work harder in Payson, as it is busier than Valley locations. The population in Payson is older, they typically have many prescriptions, and there are only a few pharmacies in Payson that service the entire greater Rim Country area. As a local, I find it very gratifying.” Dr. Vlahopoulos says that one of the disadvantages of practicing rural medicine in Payson is that “We may have to send patients to the Valley. We try to keep patients local whenever we can and we always give them the best possible medical advice and services.” Lauren says that one of the disadvantages of practicing in a rural community can be the way medical providers are treated, saying, “I think sometimes people don’t realize how difficult it is to attract good medical providers to Payson and how much harder the local providers have to work up here than in urban areas. Patients get frustrated with long wait times, ambulance rides to Phoenix, etc., but they don’t realize how frustrating it is to the medical providers when they cannot get adequate staff to serve the community’s needs.”
“It’s difficult to attract new, young professionals to the area, medical providers included, partly because of the limited job opportunities for significant others and educational opportunities for their children.” What advice do you have for those students, living in the Payson area, wanting to study the field of medicine? Lauren stated, “Get out there and ask someone if you can shadow them. You need to experience it, see the plusses and minuses, and then decide.” Lauren and Alex shared the same message: “Growing up in Payson, we want to convey that you can do it! Medical school is a grueling process. It can be so overwhelming, stick with it, and keep pushing through it. The further you get through school, the better it gets (learning what you want to learn, not what you have to learn).” As Alex said, “Find a mentor who has done it. Connections help. Find someone to show you how to do it, the roadmap. My mom was a realtor and dad was a trash company owner… they could not show me the roadmap—how to get there. I shadowed doctors, pharmacists, engineers.” When asked why they moved back to Payson, Lauren and Alex both had an immediate, heartfelt response: “We live where we love to be!”
Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions!
308 East Aero Drive
Payson, Arizona 85541