Up Close | UCSF Fresno Graduates to Care for Patients and Teach Future Physicians

One hundred medical residents and fellows along with four oral and maxillofacial surgery dental residents and five physician assistants completed training at UCSF Fresno this year for a total of 109 graduates. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, UCSF Fresno celebrated the occasion for the second year in a row with a virtual commencement on June 10. Many of the graduates are staying in the Central Valley to care for patients, teach future physicians or continue their medical education.

A regional campus of the UCSF School of Medicine, UCSF Fresno is the largest academic physician-training program between San Francisco and Sacramento in the north and Los Angeles to the south. Faculty at UCSF Fresno along with residents and fellows provide care to thousands of patients each year. UCSF Fresno was established in 1975 to address the severe shortage of physicians in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

“Under the leadership of our faculty, trainees pivoted and persevered during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent surge,” said Michael W. Peterson, MD, associate dean at UCSF Fresno. “They continued their critical work in learning environments, at bedsides and in the community, while addressing the renewed movement for social justice that calls on each of us to recognize, reject and break down systemic barriers and racism. We are pleased to have helped them fine tune their skills. We are incredibly proud of the health professionals they are today and particularly delighted that so many are staying in the Central Valley.”    

Graduates from Community Medical Centers’ General Dentistry Residency program also were recognized during the 2021 commencement program.

UCSF Fresno 2021 Graduation Highlights:

  • 60% of residents and fellows completing training in the Department of Emergency Medicine are staying in the Central Valley to provide care. 
  • 47% of residents and fellows completing training in the Department of Family and Community Medicine are staying in the region to provide much needed primary care  
  • 50% of Internal Medicine residents are staying in the Valley 
  • Both fellows in the Infectious Diseases Program are staying in Fresno as faculty at UCSF Fresno to train physicians and provide desperately needed expertise in the community to address COVID-19 and other infectious diseases 
  • 46% of residents completing training in the Department of Pediatrics are staying in the region 
  • 25% of residents completing Psychiatry training are staying in the Valley and 75% are staying in California or 1 out of 4 graduating Psychiatry residents is staying in the Valley and 3 are staying in California
  • 40% of all UCSF Fresno 2021 graduates are staying in the Central Valley  
  • 75% of all graduates are staying in California to provide care, teach or continue their education.

The 2021 graduating class includes: 

Hebah Ghanem

Hebah Ghanem, MD, completed a two-year fellowship in Infectious Diseases (ID) at UCSF Fresno. Fellowships are advanced training in a sub-specialty after residency. After graduation, Dr. Ghanem is staying in Fresno as faculty at UCSF Fresno to provide care and teach residents and fellows. Her co-fellow in the Infectious Diseases program also is staying in Fresno, where the medical expertise is desperately needed.

Dr. Ghanem, who is Jordanian, was born in Kuwait and lived in various countries. After the Gulf War, she moved to Jordan where she went to medical school, completed residency training and became board certified in Dermatology. She and her husband moved to the United States in 2013 for her husband to finish his nurse practitioner degree. They moved to Orange County in California to be near family. At that time, she decided to shift her focus from Dermatology to Internal Medicine.

Even though she had scored the highest rank, earning her a spot in Dermatology, which was considered the most prestigious specialty in her country, coming to the U.S. as a foreign graduate was challenging. “My four years of experience was not considered. It was hard for me to stay in medicine.”

As the wife of a student, her visa did not allow her to work. She stayed home for two years and wondered during that time whether she should stay in medicine. “I think I wanted to be a role model for my daughters,” she said. “I watched Gray’s Anatomy and would cry. Friends wrote in my yearbook that I was going to be at WHO (World Health Organization) one day. That was my lowest point, and I didn’t want my daughters to feel like it’s OK to quit.”

When her husband finished his nursing program, it was time to decide whether to go back to Jordan or stay in the U.S. They decided to stay and applied for Permanent Resident Cards. Meanwhile, Dr. Ghanem applied to Internal Medicine residency training programs and matched with Trinitas in New Jersey. Following residency, her plan was to go back to Orange County, but an interview at UCSF Fresno would change her course.

“I like the people at UCSF Fresno the best. The staff are very friendly and make me feel at home,” she said. “My co-fellow, Dr. Michele Maison-Fomotar, it felt like we knew each other for a long time. Dr. Naiel Nassar, our program director, we can go to him with any concerns. And Lorna Tahan (program coordinator), emailing her was one reason I chose this program.  She was so friendly, so great. When I came here for the interview, I felt like ‘yes, I want to be here’ from day one when I did my interview.”

Dr. Ghanem looks forward to joining the faculty at UCSF Fresno, teaching and being an Infectious Diseases attending physician and expanding the program. Infectious Diseases is an important sub-specialty in Fresno, especially with valley fever, sexually transmitted illness rates that are high, and with COVID-19, she said. “It’s been very important to have the ID expertise here.” 

When not working, Dr. Ghanem spends time with family, taking her three kids to gymnastics, swimming and horse riding. After graduation, she is going back to Jordan to see her parents. It’s been three years.

Her advice for new interns coming to UCSF Fresno in late June is to like what you do, love what you do, and you will feel connected. “Even at moments when you feel down, you have this inside you and that will make you feel right again. I think anyone who loves what they do, they can do it, too. I’m proud of myself.”

Walid Hamud-Ahmed

Fresno native Walid Hamud-Ahmed, MD, completed a four-year emergency medicine residency program at UCSF Fresno, fulfilling a childhood dream.

“As a kid, my dad was a big influence in my life and he would always joke, ‘My son, when I get old and sick, I need you to be my doctor and take care of me,’” said Dr. Hamud-Ahmed. “It really stuck with me.”

Sadly, his father died tragically in a car accident when Hamud-Ahmed was 11. His mom Nor was left to raise six boys alone, including Dr. Hamud-Ahmed, who was third oldest. “No one gets anywhere in life alone,” Dr. Hamud-Ahmed said. “There were definitely moments where things were brought into question, ‘like is school the most important thing?’”

His family ran a small grocery store in Fresno County that served many migrant farmworkers. They sold food and cashed checks. Ghasan, Dr. Hamud-Ahmed’s brother, the oldest of the six boys, stepped up to run the family business. Ghasan was just 19 years old at the time. “At certain points in my teenage years, I saw my brother struggling and it made me feel guilty because I was able to go to school and he wasn’t. I know he could see a brighter future ahead of me and his support was what changed the world for me. Certainly, without him, I would not be where I am today.” A graduate of Central East High School, Dr. Hamud-Ahmed graduated from Fresno State as part of the Smittcamp Family Honors Program.

Attracted by its Program in Medical Education for the Urban Underserved (PRIME-US), Dr. Hamud-Ahmed was admitted to the UCSF School of Medicine. PRIME-US is designed to nurture, support and equip medical students to effectively promote health equity and provide health care to urban underserved communities.

While at UCSF, Hamud-Ahmed was involved in a violence prevention program that studied people who were injured from gun violence and ways to prevent further injury. With the American Association of Yemeni Students and Professionals, he also worked with students from Yemen, first-generation Yemeni boys and girls who didn’t get the encouragement to go to college due to cultural pressures.  He hopes to continue these efforts in the Central Valley following residency. “Residency is so busy; it will be nice to have some free time to give back again.”

“A lot of us went into medicine to give back to those most in need. Medicine alone will not fix societies. We need to address issues in education, financial health and literacy, safe neighborhoods, pipeline programs– all very much are tied to your health and wellbeing. I saw firsthand how your ZIP code can affect your health and safety. These are things that will take grassroots efforts to change.  I always had that kind of outlook in life.”

At UCSF Fresno, he loves the faculty, residents, and patients. “Our patients are some of the most generous and grateful patients that you can take care of. The need is so great. They really do appreciate our care and our service. The gratitude they share is unlike anything I’ve experienced at other hospitals, and I’ve worked in many.”

Dr. Hamud-Ahmed is grateful to the people who encouraged him to become a physician, including Kenny Banh, MD, emergency medicine physician and assistant dean for Undergraduate Medical Education at UCSF Fresno. He met Dr. Banh when Hamud-Ahmed was a premedical student. Part of the UCSF Fresno Academic Research Associates Program while at Fresno State, Dr. Hamud-Ahmed calls himself a product of UCSF Fresno pathway programs.

He is most proud of being a husband to wife Haleema and father to Ismael and Noora. “They changed my life for the better and gave me perspective on what really is important. I’m proud of them and lucky to have them in my life.”

After graduation, Dr. Hamud-Ahmed will work in the Emergency Department at Clovis Community Medical Center and will stay at UCSF Fresno as part-time faculty.

“I don’t want to stop being a resident in a way. I want to continue learning. I want to stay on the cutting-edge,” he said. “I’m very grateful for UCSF Fresno, for the support and encouragement, and my family, especially my mom Nor and my brother Ghasan.”

Leslie Littlefield

Leslie Littlefield, MD, completed a three-year fellowship in Pulmonary and Critical Care (PCC), a division within the UCSF Fresno Department of Internal Medicine. Fellowships are advanced training in a sub-specialty following residency. PCC fellows receive extensive training in pulmonary medicine with dedicated faculty in all subspecialties in pulmonary medicine such as cystic fibrosis, pulmonary hypertension, interstitial lung disease, asthma/COPD, lung infection, lung cancer, interventional pulmonary and general pulmonary medicine. 

Dr. Littlefield, a self-described first-generation Mexican American, grew up all over California, moving with her mother about 20 times before she was 16 to escape an abusive background.  They settled in Orangevale near Sacramento, where she graduated from Casa Roble High School at age 16 and became a certified nurse’s aide. With the goal of becoming a doctor, she became a licensed vocational nurse and took courses at nearby community colleges – wherever she could find classes that fit her schedule.  When a chance came up to go to medical school in Mexico, she seized the opportunity.

“It was another world,” she said. “Speaking Spanish at home was different than being fluent and speaking with (medical school) peers.” Six years later, she graduated at the top of her class and completed the customary internship year as well as a year of community service in Mexico.

There were times when she thought about giving up. Pit bulls attacked her beloved Chihuahua. Her husband could not find a job. Her car was stolen, and family belongings were stolen back in the United States.

A tale she heard in Mexico kept her going. It was a story of two frogs stuck in a bucket of cream. Unable to get out, one frog gives up. The other, determined to survive, keeps going, keeps churning away. The cream begins to solidify and eventually turns to butter, and the frog climbs out of the bucket.  

Dr. Littlefield returned to the U.S. and completed residency training in Internal Medicine at Alameda Health System in Oakland. There, she developed an interest and passion for Pulmonary and Critical Care. She did an elective at UCSF Fresno and fell in love.

“I love the people, the culture, the patients, everyone is humble here,” she said.  “There is high acuity seen here that you don’t see anywhere else and my program prides itself on teaching autonomy and critical decision making.

The Pulmonary and Critical Care Division was on the front lines during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent surge in 2020.

“COVID gave a whole new meaning to intensive care,” she said. “We worked around the clock, 24 hours a day in shifts. There were so many unknowns brought on by COVID.  You don’t know if you’re going to get infected, but you have a moral responsibility to do right by the patients.”

Looking back as training ends, Dr. Littlefield said, “I am proud that I got here.  I could have stopped many, many times but didn’t. I think about the underprivileged part, coming from a background like that could have led me down a very different path.

“I would like to tell every impoverished person from every ethnicity, if I can do it, if one person can do it. They can all do it. Never give up. Whatever your dreams are – go for it.”

Oh, and thank you, mommy, she added, grinning widely. 

After graduation, she looks forward to spending time with her family in Sacramento, paying off some student loans and finding work-life balance that may include belly dancing, which she enjoyed so much in her life before residency and fellowship training.

Michele Maison-Fomotar

Michele Meime Maison-Fomotar, MD, completed a two-year fellowship in Infectious Diseases (ID) at UCSF Fresno and will stay as Internal Medicine faculty.

Dr. Maison-Fomotar completed a three-year residency in Internal Medicine at UCSF Fresno before continuing as an Infectious Diseases Fellow. “I am happy to have been a part of the UCSF Fresno family since 2016, and I look forward to staying on as ID faculty,” she said. “I hope I can inspire people to love ID as I do.”

Dr. Maison-Fomotar grew up in Cameroon, Africa, where she went straight to medical school from high school for a seven-year program at the Faculte de Medecine et des Sciences Biomedicales Universite de Yaoundé. Her biggest challenge, as an immigrant, was getting into residency and “learning how to adapt in a new educational system here in the United States, especially since I learned medicine mostly in French,” she said. But at UCSF Fresno, she felt a sense of belonging to a large family, and the best part of her training experience has been the collegiality of her co-residents, fellows and faculty, she said.

She drew inspiration to become a physician from the strong women in her life. Her godmother was a midwife. One of her close family friends is a physician and her older sister is a physician. Watching her mother struggle with diabetes inspired her to become an internist, she said. She also found Internal Medicine fascinating. “The complexity of dealing with the adult patient has always called to me. As a physician in Cameroon, I worked mostly with adult patients, especially patients with HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria.

Dr, Maison-Fomotar and her co-fellow in the Infectious Diseases program are staying in Fresno, where medical expertise is desperately needed for valley fever, increasing rates of sexually transmitted diseases and for COVID-19.

“I have always wanted to do Infectious Diseases, especially after my experiences in Cameroon.” The pathology she has seen in Fresno is unparalleled as well, she said.

“And I have a healthy respect for microorganisms and the havoc they can wreak. The world of ID continues to enlighten, challenge and fascinate me daily.”

COVID-19 was a new experience, she said. “I don’t think many of us were prepared for the magnitude this pandemic would take and it was daunting to be in the middle of it. However, it highlighted the resilience and solidarity we can have in the face of adversity, opened us to new ways of working, exciting new research and vaccines, and has forever changed the way we learn, work, and relate with others.” 

Her advice for incoming interns arriving at the end of June? “Enjoy the ride! It will be challenging but these years are the ones where you will learn the most.”

In her spare time, Dr. Maison-Fomotar enjoys cooking, traveling, dancing, playing the piano, event planning and décor – and just spending time with family. Her plans after graduation include taking a vacation before she joins the Infectious Diseases team at UCSF Fresno. “I am so excited!”

Eric Rabey

Eric Rabey, DDS, grew up in Fresno. He graduated from Clovis West High School, UC Irvine and the USC School of Dentistry. He also completed a two-year General Dental Practice Residency Program (GPR) at Community Regional Medical Center and recently completed a four-year residency in Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery (OMFS) at UCSF Fresno.

In dental school, he planned on practicing Orthodontics but as time went by, Dr. Rabey changed his focus to General Dentistry. A one-month rotation in UCSF Fresno’s OMFS program during General Practice Residency and he set his sights elsewhere.

“I like the scope of practice (in OMFS). It’s exciting. There’s a lot more surgery,” he said. “There’s trauma, benign and malignant pathology, infections, a lot of variety and a lot more application of diverse knowledge.” 

Following his GPR, he applied and was accepted to the OMFS residency program at UCSF Fresno. Residents train and operate mostly downtown at Community Regional Medical Center and the UCSF Fresno OMFS Clinic Care Center. Residents also rotate and operate at the VA Medical Center in Fresno, Clovis Community Medical Center, Saint Agnes Medical Center and Kaiser Permanente’s Fresno Medical Center.  

Dr. Rabey is one of four chief residents and currently, serves as the clinic chief.   

“The attendings are the best part of training at UCSF Fresno,” said Dr. Rabey, referring to OMFS faculty Robert Julian, DDS, MD; Brian M. Woo, DDS, MD; and George Zakhary, DDS, MD. “You’re not going to find them anywhere else. They have a ton of experience and are more than willing to share. They foster a positive environment, and they all inspire you to be a better resident and person. They’re just good people.” 

If you were to walk in the residents’ room right now, it’s like 17 people who despite working hard are in great spirits and I attribute that a lot to our attendings, he added.  

The past year hasn’t been without hurdles though. Finishing his final year of residency during the COVID-19 pandemic was mentally taxing for the husband and father. Out of concern for his family’s safety, he stayed away from his wife Celeste and their three kids Capri, Coco and Chip for three months. But the family had a good support system, and the state of the pandemic has improved significantly.  

Dr. Rabey looks forward to staying in Fresno after graduation and joining a local practice Premier Valley Oral Surgery & Dental Implants.  

“I was excited to be able to get a job here,” he said.  “That was the whole goal. My parents are here, my wife’s family is here.  I just happened to get a job at the same place I got my wisdom teeth out when I was 15.” 

His advice to incoming residents: Enjoy learning and stay positive. It’s well worth it. Residency has been fantastic. I will miss it. I will miss all the people I work with. 

Monica Thomas-Uribe

Monika Thomas-Uribe, MD, MPH, completed a three-year residency training program in Pediatrics at UCSF Fresno. After graduation, Dr. Thomas-Uribe will stay in Fresno to care for patients at Kaiser Permanente’s Fresno Medical Center.

The patients she serves in Fresno remind her of the patient population in Valle de Bravo, the small town in Mexico where she grew up. “My father is a surgeon. He did surgeries, but also delivered babies, cared for patients of all ages, and was often paid with chickens and pigs. That’s what I thought it meant to be a doctor, she said. I always wanted to be a doctor.”

Her family moved to Toluca, the capital of Mexico’s central State of Mexico so she could attend high school. She attended medical school at the Universidad Anáhuac in Huixquilucan, State of Mexico, Mexico.

“In Mexico, students go to medical school for six years. The fifth year is an internship. The sixth year is a social service year,” said Dr. Thomas-Uribe.  “You spend time providing medical care in remote areas of the country.”

During medical school, she volunteered to go to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. After medical school, she did visiting rotations at Oxford in England and in Germany. Her passion for public health led her to Emory University where she earned a master’s in public health. It was then she decided to stay in the United States, moving to California for a job as a research assistant at Stanford University. There, she met her husband. 

While applying to residency programs, mentors at Stanford and a colleague both recommended UCSF Fresno. She applied and matched. The colleague who recommended UCSF Fresno – Mackenzie Yore, MD – is completing residency training in the UCSF Fresno Department of Emergency Medicine.

“Being here and about to finish residency training is a dream come true, said Dr. Thomas-Uribe. The patient population is what I like best. I was nervous at first that I wasn’t going to help people I am passionate about. But I speak Spanish every day and I understand the culture and that’s something I love about being here.”

The end of training comes with bittersweet moments, too. She had her final medical visit recently with the very first pediatric patient she saw in residency. He’s almost three years old now.  And looking back, she is reminded that the path wasn’t always easy. It was hard to get into medical school. It was expensive and it was emotionally draining, she said.

“It’s difficult in the United States for international medical graduates, trying to understand everything again in English and trying to prove that you are good enough,” she said. “I don’t know if it was my own insecurities or if it was real, probably a combination of both.”

She acknowledges the help of family, her husband, mentors and friends and is grateful for everyone who supported her along the way.

She is proud of a pesticide project she has been working on. Latinos make up many people working in the fields. They deserve help with education about exposure to pesticides, she said. “We need to make sure they understand with information in Spanish, Mixteco or the language they speak. They need personal protective equipment and vaccines. This is something I’m going to continue to work on.”

In her spare time, she enjoys running, participating in triathlons, working out, being outdoors, practicing capoeira (a Brazilian martial art) with her husband, relaxing and reading. She is looking forward to more spare time after residency and caring for patients at Kaiser. “I love working with children. It is the best,” said Dr. Thomas-Uribe. “Children teach you so much.”

Some of her patients even bring her whatever fruit is in season, a fond reminder of the special bonds she recalls her father having with patients when she was growing up.