Medical director heard call to serve at a young age

Medical director

Dr. Sara Doorley was named medical director of Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless in October. She came to New Mexico from a similar organization in San Jose, Calif. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Physician Sara Doorley knew from a young age she wanted to spend her life in the service of others.

Although she said her life was idyllic growing up on a small farm in Ohio, she was surrounded by those facing issues of poverty and addiction. Her parents, she said, set the example for how she should view and treat those less fortunate than she. Doorley’s parents encouraged her to choose a profession that had meaning to her and served others. Her mom is a nurse and her father is a teacher.

“My parents are wonderful,” she said. “They saw problems related to racism and poverty. As a family, we talked about how that was not OK.”

Doorley, 39, was named medical director of Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless in October after working with a similar organization in San Jose, Calif. She joined the San Jose organization in 2009 and became its medical director in 2012.

“I grew up in a town that was poor and had racial tension,” she said. “I was always aware that different folks had different struggles. Having friends of different races and classes and hearing how it impacted their childhoods helped me understand.”

Doorley co-founded the Global Health Initiative as the result of an experience she had during her junior year at Notre Dame. She worked for the summer with a team of Arab-Israeli health care workers in the Palestinian territories. They would drive to occupied territories and provide health care. The experience would affect her philosophy on health care and influence how she treats her patients.

“It’s the first time I connected that society also has a role in health care,” she said. “It’s more than illness of the person in front of you. You have to look at the bigger picture.”

Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless was founded in 1985 as a way to provide the city and county’s homeless population with services. Patients are served on a walk-in basis and can receive primary medical and dental care and prescriptions as well as treatment for mental health and substance abuse. The center also advocates for its patients by supporting policies that benefit the homeless and by helping them find housing.

As medical director, Doorley spends 50 percent of her time treating patients. She said homeless people are often dealing with addiction and mental illness.

“Many of them have an extensive history of trauma,” she said. “There is an advocacy piece. Looking at what made this environment (in the community) that contributes to homelessness.”

Jackie Newton, also a physician, met Doorley after starting work with the homeless program in San Jose. She said Doorley has the ability to put people at ease and make them feel like they are not being judged.

“Sara has all the qualities you would want in a medical director,” she said. “Sara is an excellent physician first and foremost. She practices with compassion, integrity and humility. … So many patients loved her.”

Jenny Metzler, executive director of Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless, said she and her colleagues were excited when Doorley expressed interest.

“Every new encounter with her just validated all she has to bring – her commitment to people who are disenfranchised and vulnerable, her high standards and excellent training, her integrity and her strong yet humble approach to working with and leading others, her sharp ability to see context and think critically,” Metzler said. “… We are so, so fortunate, and each day she teaches us and challenges us to be better.”

Doorley and her husband were looking for a change of scenery. The couple wanted to move somewhere with their two children that offered plenty of outdoor activities. Doorley had never been to New Mexico and the state was not even on her radar. Then some of her friends suggested she consider it and she learned about the medical director position.

“I love the Bay Area but it was getting super-expensive and crowded,” she said. “We were looking for a place that was progressive and diverse.”

Current Mayor Tim Keller played a small role in her decision to make New Mexico home. Doorley earned her undergraduate degree from Notre Dame, where Keller was her classmate. While considering a move to New Mexico, Doorley said, she contacted Keller to ask about the state.

“He said it was great,” she said. “He told me to come.”

Rachel Lustig, also a classmate from Notre Dame, said Doorley sparked a fire within her to transform her profession of choice into service. Lustig earned a business degree and is now the president and CEO of Catholic Social Services Inc. in Columbus, Ohio. Before meeting Doorley, she had dreams of being an investment banker.

“She encouraged me to use my skill to help and make a difference,” she said. “Sara is a joyful person so she inspires you.”

Doorley and her family live in a house in Tijeras with twice as much space as the family had in San Jose, and she has found the people of New Mexico welcoming. In addition, she loves her job.

“I’m really happy to be here for sure,” she said. “It’s a privilege to work with these people. The folks we see are so resilient. They have survived so much.”

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