Kelly Damphousse

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It is difficult, sometimes, to appreciate the meaning of an institution for a community. That is especially the case for institutions that have been around for as long as anyone can remember. We seem only to notice their importance when they are gone or, in days like these, when they are not operating at full capacity.

I doubt that few people can remember a time when Arkansas State, for example, was not the heart of this community or when A-State was not where so many of our region’s teachers, health care providers, engineers, social workers and business leaders learned their skills.

But almost all of us can remember a time when there wasn’t a medical school in Northeast Arkansas. A time before when we had a realistic probability to increase the number of doctors per capita in Arkansas and, thereby, to improve the health of our state (and the entire Delta region).

On Thursday, we had the rarest of moments when we celebrated the meaning of a new institution to our community. The NYIT College of Osteopathic Medicine at Arkansas State University held its first commencement ceremony. Each of the graduates received a paperweight as a token of our appreciation for their hard work. It commemorated the opening of the first osteopathic medical school in Arkansas. It was made from marble taken from the building that would be the home of NYITCOM – Wilson Hall – the venerable, and literal, heart of the A-State campus. From this place, thousands of physicians will flow into the Delta (and around the country), and this first class will take this actual piece of A-State with them.

Six years ago, a group of visionaries recognized that Arkansas ranked 48th in number of doctors per capita and 49th in health statistics. Those hard facts led them to think strategically about what it would take to turn those numbers around.

These individuals (including A-State officials, community leaders and members of the health professions) came together to form a collaborative effort that would eventually bring NYITCOM to our campus.

This was, of course, a time before COVID-19 and the pressing medical issues of the day, but they certainly recognized the tremendous public health issues in our region: obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease and the like. They likewise recognized the terrible disparities in health outcomes among our communities – especially for those who are poor or who live in rural locations.

Today, it might seem that creating a medical school on our campus would have been a no-brainer. But bringing a medical school to Northeast Arkansas was no easy lift. There were challenging days early on when I am certain many thought that this enterprise was not going to happen.

Ha, that is nothing new for A-State. We have faced – and overcome – tremendous challenges in our history – any one of which could have led to the demise of our institution.

Not long after the arduous days of A-State’s creation, we faced the threats from the Great Depression, disastrous fires that consumed the important buildings, World War II (which decimated our enrollment) and several economic challenges over the years. Those challenges strengthened our campus and created in us a resilient and innovative spirit.

The challenges that we faced in partnering with NYIT to bring their medical school to our campus similarly strengthened our resolve and make us appreciate even more the tremendous accomplishment.

Someday, in the distant future, folks will not appreciate what NYIT’s commencement ceremony meant. It will be normal to have a doctor who graduated from NYITCOM at Arkansas State. It will seem like Arkansas (and the rural areas of the entire Delta region) have always had the excellent health and ready access to a doctor that they deserve.

In that distant future, few will recall what it took to make that happen. If they look back at all, they will say, “of course, partnering with NYITCOM was a no-brainer.” But I will look back over the past few years and silently (and virtually) thank those visionaries who made all of this possible.

I would be remiss if I did not especially thank our NYIT partners through this journey – NYIT President Dr. Hank Foley, NYIT Vice President Jerry Balentine, founding Dean, Dr. Barbara Ross-Lee, and current Dean Dr. Shane Speights. We are both indebted to the health care leaders in Arkansas and our two local hospitals, who graciously provided guidance, insight and leadership throughout the process.

So join me and others as we revel in something truly unprecedented that in the most wonderful ways we will soon forget. The first-ever physicians graduating from the first-ever osteopathic medical school in our state. For our university. For our city. For our region. For our state. For our future and the future of our grandchildren. For a time when ready access to health care in our state is a foregone conclusion.

Kelly Damphousse is chancellor of Arkansas State University.