Medical School Graduates Return To Area To Practice
Thomas Churilla’s path to become a radiation oncologist took him to the Commonwealth Medical College, then a five-year residency in Philadelphia.
This summer, the Scranton native came home.
Churilla’s return to practice medicine in Northeast Pennsylvania helps mark another milestone for the young college, now known as Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine. When a group of doctors first met in 2004 to discuss the ambitious idea of opening a medical school, they did so with the goal of increasing the number of doctors in the region.
As graduates of the school’s first classes complete their residencies, for the first time, patients can see physicians who earned their medical degrees locally.
“It’s why we’re here. It’s why we exist,” said Steven J. Scheinman, M.D., the college’s president and dean and chief academic officer of the Geisinger Health System. “It’s tremendously gratifying.”
After graduating from Scranton Preparatory School and the University of Scranton, Churilla took a risk. In 2009, he signed on to become one of 65 members of the medical college’s charter class. The school had no permanent building and no alumni.
Four years later, Churilla became part of the first class to graduate from the new school.
While at the University of Scranton, a course on the science of oncology interested him. During Churilla’s first year of medical college, his father died from colon cancer. As he learned about cancer care as a medical student, Churilla decided to become a specialist in treating the disease.
“I always found it challenging, very interesting and intellectually stimulating,” the 30-year-old said. “Seeing the impact an oncologist can have, it really stuck with me as well. ... You see the patients at least once a week when they’re going through treatments. You help coordinate their care. You develop a bond as you get to know them and their families.”
In June, Churilla completed his residency at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. Last week, he began seeing patients at Northeast Radiation Oncology Centers in Dunmore.
His wife, Tara Churilla, a West Scranton High School graduate who earned her doctorate from Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, just completed her pediatrics residency and is now a physician at Pediatric Associates of Kingston.
“It really is an honor and a privilege to come back and care for the people we grew up with,” Churilla said.
After graduating from medical college, new doctors spend at least three years in a residency program, depending on the speciality. Some doctors then complete fellowship programs.
When students graduate from Geisinger Commonwealth, an adviser stays in touch. A committee helps track the students, and if doctors are interested in returning, the college puts them in touch with medical systems locally.
“If a student graduates from our medical school and returns to the area, no matter who they work for, that is a success,” Scheinman said. Some health systems offer loan repayment and other incentives, and the medical college reminds the doctors about the quality of life in the region, including affordable housing and the opportunity to teach at the medical school — which Churilla already plans to do.
The college does not have a final count for the number of doctors who have returned because many of the members of the first classes are still in training.
Meanwhile, the college has worked to increase the number of residencies available locally, with the hope that those physicians will stay here to practice, Scheinman said.
With six classes of graduates, Scheinman said he hopes more physicians soon will call Northeast Pennsylvania home.
“They are remarkable people in so many ways. ... I know what fine young people they are,” he said.
Patrick Connors’ parents grew up in South Scranton. Connors, M.D., a member of the college’s second class in 2014, now helps care for their friends and former neighbors.
The internal medicine doctor began practicing at the Prime Med office on Pittston Avenue last year.
“It’s nice to practice in an area with people who have meant so much to you,” said the Dunmore native, who completed his residency at Jefferson University Hospitals in Philadelphia.
As another physician in the office nears retirement, Connors sees patients who once feared they may be without a neighborhood doctor.
“I love the idea of trying to prevent illness,” Connors said. “The people in the community have meant so much to me. I’m trying to improve the health of those in the community.”
After graduating from the medical college in 2014, and completing his residency in Hershey, Daniel Benyo, M.D., began practicing medicine in Conyngham, Luzerne County.
Benyo, 36, worked in the music recording engineering field before deciding to go to medical school. Now with the Lehigh Valley Physicians Group, he knew he wanted to practice locally.
“I think it’s something special to be able to treat some of the patients I saw when growing up, and also to be part of the bigger plan of the medical school,” he said.
Kevin Musto, M.D., another member of the second class, now sees patients as a primary care doctor in West Pittston.
The Pittston native, who completed his residency through the Wright Center, with offices in Lackawanna and Luzerne counties, knew he wanted to train where he eventually wanted to practice.
“I’ve always loved this area,” the 30-year-old said. “It’s an incredible experience to know my patients and their history and to be able to relate to them on a level that you would only get if you grew up where they grew up.”
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