Human Science Alumnus Is Emergency Medicine Resident in Chicago

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October 8, 2020 – Dr. Derek “Ricky” Altema (NHS’15), who received his bachelor’s degree in human science at Georgetown, graduated in May from Howard University College of Medicine and began an emergency medicine residency this summer at the University of Chicago. He says cura personalis will guide his career, one in which he hopes to advocate for patients who are underserved and promote diversity in medicine.

Dr. Derek "Ricky" Altema in his physician's coat with a sunny landscape behind him of trees, skies, and homes.
Human science alumnus Dr. Derek “Ricky” Altema (NHS’15) is now an emergency medicine resident at the University of Chicago.

Question: How do you feel human science and Georgetown prepared you for medical school and your career? 

Altema: Human science was a great major for me as someone who primarily wanted to learn about the human body. In my mind, it is the quintessential pre-med major. But I had realized that I was one of few in my cohort that didn’t come from a family with at least one physician. It was one thing to “trust the process,” but entirely another to figure it out as I went along. So I was fortunate to have a handful of advisors, mentors, and close friends – both pre-med and otherwise – providing encouragement as the years went by. 

I supplemented coursework for my major by studying economics and learned a great deal about the socioeconomic impacts of health care in our underserved communities. This is when I truly began to understand the meaning of Georgetown’s cura personalis. Not only did it transform my way of thinking about medicine, but it will continue to guide me as I advance throughout my career. 

Question: How did you enjoy your time as a medical student at Howard University College of Medicine? 

Altema: I loved my time at Howard! I chose to go there for medical school because of the students, faculty, and patient population. As a premier HBCU, Howard has an incredible network both within the DC area and across the country, and the institution’s standing in the community made it a special place to train. It was important to be around so many people that share a similar cultural background and upbringing. It made even the toughest days a bit easier to push through. I definitely had too much fun in medical school, but my experience at Howard has set me on a path to become a confident and compassionate clinician.

Question: Were you hoping to match at the University of Chicago, and how has the residency been so far?

Altema: The University of Chicago was my number one choice on my match list, and it’s one of the best emergency medicine programs in the country – my completely unbiased opinion! I have the privilege to train under the tutelage of exceptional physicians at a premier academic institution, while serving patients in the South Side of Chicago. Additionally, my program boasts incredible diversity, which stood out when I was applying. When I came for my interview, the residents I met were so welcoming and down to earth. Since moving to Chicago, I’ve found them to be as hilarious as they are brilliant. They motivate me to get better each and every day. 

Question: Have you been working on the COVID-19 response?

Altema: Having started my residency in July, I missed the initial surge that we experienced back in the winter and spring. We are still seeing patients afflicted by the virus in various capacities and are constantly learning more about its manifestations over time. The pandemic isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, as we are bracing ourselves for another major wave of the virus in the coming months. With this virus disproportionately affecting people of color in underserved communities, it’s increasingly important for us as medical providers to properly educate our patients about taking proper precautions to limit the spread of the virus. 

Question: What are some of your goals as you begin your career as a physician?

Altema: Residency is tough. It’s the hardest stage of my training thus far. Compared to medical school, you assume way more responsibility as a resident. Meanwhile, the knowledge gap is immense. My intern year also involves a lot of off-service rotations, where I spend time with trauma surgery, pediatrics, and critical care teams. So for now, I just try to get better each day, focusing on expanding my clinical acumen and providing the best care I can for my patients. 

In the future, I hope to encourage more minority medical students to enter the compelling field of emergency medicine. Studies have shown that improving diversity and representation in medicine leads to better health outcomes. As a specialty, emergency medicine provides a distinctive window into our communities, and many of the patients that we treat may be at their most vulnerable or untrustworthy of physicians. We can make a huge difference in treating and advocating for our patients in this setting, and I look forward to making an impact as I progress throughout my career.

By Bill Cessato