Tiffany Ludka ‘04 has a piece of advice for students with big bills: It never hurts to ask for help.
During her first year of medical school at the University of Washington, the Colfax native hit on the idea of asking the medical community in her hometown to consider paying some of her medical school bills if she agreed to go into practice there. She’d known for a long time that she wanted to practice in a small town, preferably the one she grew up in.
Colfax, 13 miles north of Pullman, has a bustling downtown and is the county seat, but with a population just under 3,000, it’s definitely small — which suits Ludka just fine. Seattle was OK, but she prefers the friendli-ness and lack of traffic in communities like Colfax, as well as the easy access to biking trails and trout streams. “I’m big on outdoor things,” she says.
So she floated the idea with Dr. Kim Mellor, who knew her and her family and could vouch for her commitment to medicine and to small-town life. Mellor asked her to write up a proposal, which he took to the other members of the Whitman Medical Group and to Whitman Hospital and Medical Center administrator Jon Davis and the hospital’s board of directors.
The proposal looked like a good deal for the town as well as for Ludka, says Davis. Physician recruitment has become difficult and costly all across the country, not just in small communities. “You have to think long-term when you do something like this,” he says.
“We want good doctors here, and this is one way of going about it — start with a known quantity, and go from there.”
So the decision was made. Whitman Medical Group and Whitman Hospital contributed about $45,000, half of Ludka’s medical school expenses for her last three years of medical school. In exchange, she agreed to practice in Colfax for three years.
Davis says Ludka’s gender wasn’t a factor in their decision — a male student with the same record and reputation would have gotten the same deal — but it was a bonus. Colfax doesn’t currently have a woman physician, which is a problem since many female patients prefer to see a female doctor, especially for gynecological exams.
Ludka will join Whitman Medical Group in four years, after she finishes her residency in internal medicine and pediatrics. The combination covers everything in family practice but obstetrics. “Women and kids will be my forte,” she says.
For Ludka the hardest part of the agreement was getting up the nerve to ask for help. Now a poised, outgoing professional, as a teenager she was so shy that she doubted her ability to be a doctor.
“I didn’t know if I could handle working with people all the time,” she says. She thought research might be a better fit, so while still in high school she worked in labs in the neuroscience department at Washington State University. At the same time, she participated in the Junior Miss program, where her daffy impersonation of Jim Carrey’s character from the movie Liar, Liar helped her place second — and see herself in a whole new light.
“I was floored,” she says. “I was up on stage yelling and acting all crazy, and I loved it. I thought, this is pretty cool.”
When she came to WSU, her classes in the Honors College further boosted her confidence.
“You’re sitting in your class of 20, and the professor says, ‘Tell me what you thought of this paragraph,’ and you have to speak up. You’re kind of forced to come out of your shell,” she recalls.
If she hadn’t gotten financial aid from her hometown, Ludka says she might have had to take a job in a big city just to earn enough to pay back the loans she’d have needed to finish medical school. Compared to that, asking the Colfax medical establishment for help didn’t seem so scary.
“It wasn’t easy, but it was so practical,” she says. “I figured, what better way [for them] than to find a home-grown person who’s not going to be afraid to go back to a small town, who is willing and happy to come back? See if they can help me out and make that more possible?
“If I hadn’t asked, I never would have known.”