The Maine Story

When Marya Spurling (M13), a student in the Maine Track Program, got the news that she had been accepted to TUSM, her entire town knew within a day -- all 75 year-round residents of Little Cranberry Island, one of Maine’s 15 un-bridged offshore islands.

Since there is no high school on the island, Marya had to leave her family and live with a friend during the week to attend the nearest school.

“Having been raised not only by my immediate family but also by my neighbors, I feel a responsibility to a larger family, one that is intergenerational, not all related, not always in agreement and encompasses a wealth of experiences and perspectives. As I was acutely aware during my pursuit of medical schools, we are all involved in each other’s lives.”

During her last visit home, Marya attended a meeting for the island’s new Health Care Initiative, which aims to establish a telemedicine unit to connect residents to physicians on the mainland.

“As I contemplate my own role in the community and my future in medicine, one of my visions is to provide medical care to the outer islands as a doctor who travels across the water to visit patients in their homes or community centers. An itinerant medical practice such as this wouldn’t be a cure-all, but nobody comes to the islands expecting an easy life. What they get is a life full of many shared challenges and rewards.”

To read more about Marya’s experiences living on a small island town on the coast of Maine, visit story.

The word Maine usually brings to mind rocky coastlines full of sunny beaches and sailboats. However, there exists a distinctly different area with a lifestyle that is in sharp contrast to this image.

A large part of Maine consists of rural towns and deep woods, and is rife with high unemployment, poverty, chronic illness, and substance abuse. In 2008, Maine’s Office of Rural Health and Primary Care reported that just 39 percent of residents in these areas had a primary care physician.

Adding to local concern, the situation was not on track for improvement. Many of the current rural doctors were enticed to the area in the 1970s by the creation of the National Health Service Corps scholarship and loan repayment programs for designated Health Professional Shortage Areas.

This generation of doctors is now set to retire, leaving a large number of openings with little potential for replacements. To help narrow the gap, Maine began bringing in foreign doctors under a visa program that requires practice for three years in an undeserved area. But the challenge remained of enticing young U.S. doctors to small-town Maine and getting them to stay.

TUSM’s relationship with Maine Medical Center in Portland began in the 1930s when federal funding first provided opportunities for TUSM students to work in Maine hospitals. In the fall of 2011, TUSM will welcome its third class of Maine Track students, who will be joining the 66 students currently participating in this unique joint program with Maine Medical Center. Students in the Maine Track program spend their first two years in Boston and complete third-year clerkships and part of their fourth-year rotations in Maine.

A large number of Maine Track slots are reserved for Maine natives or students with close ties to the state. Many of these potential doctors are discouraged by the high cost of obtaining a medical degree due to Maine’s lack-of an in-state medical school.

Half-tuition scholarships are offered to these students to ease this concern. Chad Szylvian (M13) from Brewer accrued over $146,000 in debt during undergraduate years at Boston College, and cites the scholarship as an incentive to join the program; “I was looking at $50,000-some a year for medical school on top of my other debt, so that half-tuition definitely helps.”

Another selling point for some students is the quality of life. Small-town doctors can have a good clinical practice and still be able to spend time with family. Amanda Call (M13) plans to return to her hometown of Steep Falls after residency.

“I would love to practice in the community that I grew up in, and maybe someday have my own clinic. My goal is not to make a bunch of money but to have a stable practice back home.”

Local students also feel a commitment to their communities, having seen firsthand the barriers to quality health care that exist for area residents. “A lot of times they don’t have insurance or the finances even to shell out for a co-pay,” Heather Bradford (M13) says of her neighbors from Eddington. “I can’t imagine going anywhere else (to practice medicine),” she states about her career plans.

The goal of the program is to retain 75 percent of the class as physicians practicing in rural Maine. Although this numbers may seem small when considering the size and neediness of the state, it is a step in the right direction. According to Tim Churchill, President and CEO of Western Maine Health, "We believe every physician we get coming to this state is a difference-maker."

For additional information on the Maine Track Program and how to apply, please visit