Pittston Woman’s Medical School Aspirations Aided by The Wright Center

As our endorsed ‘Hometown Scholar,’ she’s now on path to becoming a physician

For Pittston resident Moriah Bartolai, the journey to medical school began with the jarring loss of a loved one.

Her cherished grandfather, who at age 93 still taught piano lessons to her and about a dozen others, tripped and fell one night in his kitchen. He broke a hip. Moriah was then a senior in high school, and she soon began serving as part-time caregiver, tending to her grandfather’s basic needs and accompanying him to doctor’s appointments.

“Taking care of my grandfather, that’s what planted the seed,” Moriah says. Her goal to become a physician further took shape in the five years since then and, in early May, she received a highly anticipated letter of acceptance.

Moriah has been selected to attend medical school at A.T. Still University School of Osteopathic Medicine in Arizona (ATSU-SOMA), where she will participate in its innovative Hometown Scholars program.

The program, conducted with The Wright Center for Community Health and other partners, allows aspiring physicians to study at the central campus in Mesa, Arizona, for their first year of medical school, then complete the second through fourth years at one of a select number of health centers elsewhere in the United States. Moriah, 23, began her studies in Arizona this July.

She became only the second area resident – and second Wright Center-endorsed candidate – to enter the Hometown Scholars program.

Along with meeting the rigorous requirements to apply to medical school, a Hometown Scholar must spend time in a community health center and be recommended by a community health center leader. In Moriah’s case, her endorsement came from Dr. Linda Thomas-Hemak, CEO of The Wright Center for Community Health.

“Moriah is dedicated to becoming a highly skilled, compassionate primary care osteopathic physician and healthcare leader who will both serve and advocate for vulnerable populations, communities and humanity,” said Dr. Thomas-Hemak.

Created as a way to guide talented youth toward a rewarding and respected career, The Hometown Scholars program identifies and recruits future medical professionals who, in turn, serve as aspirational examples for other young people in our region.

Moriah previously worked at The Wright Center’s Mid Valley and Scranton primary care practices, serving as a medical scribe. She is an alumna of Scranton Preparatory School, graduating in 2016, and the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned degrees in anthropology and microbiology.

Drawn to the sciences as a youngster, Moriah initially thought she would one day become a medical researcher. As a first-year college student, however, she worked in a wet lab, delving into the mysteries of a rare cause of blindness. She appreciated the experience but realized “it wasn’t what I dreamed of doing when I got older.”

Instead, she was seeking a role that provided more robust human interaction. She found it as a college junior during a job at the UPMC Cardiovascular Institute. Moriah worked among physicians, nurses and other professionals in its Heart SCORE Clinical Research Lab, which is conducting a years-long project to better assess the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, especially among women and racial minorities.

Moriah met with the project’s participants, collecting their lipid panels and guiding them through questionnaires. “I loved being able to see patients,” says Moriah.  “I loved being able to teach, telling them about new things the lab was going to be doing and why it was doing them.”

Around that time, Moriah decided to aim to become a doctor; she buckled down on her studies and began preparing to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).

Her career aspiration was fueled in no small part by earlier observations of how the healthcare system had treated her grandfather, Gino Bartolai Sr., during his final months. She witnessed his rapid decline from confident, independent family patriarch to shy patient, so meek that he sometimes wouldn’t even tell doctors or nurses about the pain he was experiencing.

“He might not have been the most educated man in the traditional sense, but he was a very smart guy. He ran his own business, and it was a successful one. He lived a really long, wise life. Yet he was ashamed to speak up for himself in those medical settings,” she says. “As a future physician I want to make sure patients don’t feel that way. I wish he could’ve been more empowered to understand what his diagnosis was and to understand his choices.”

By virtue of enrolling at ATSU-SOMA, Moriah will be immersed in a program that aims to produce highly competent and compassionate physicians. And she will engage with patients in clinical settings sooner than many of her counterparts at other medical schools.

Most schools typically don’t offer clinical rotations until the third year. However, ATSU-SOMA uses what is known as the “1+3 model.” That means Moriah will spend her first year on the Mesa campus doing didactic coursework and gaining skills through simulations and other activities. Then she will have the opportunity to return to Scranton for her second through fourth years, learning in the classroom while also going with physicians into The Wright Center’s clinical settings at least once a week.

An emphasis is placed on patient interaction, professionalism, ethics, preventive medicine and communication skills.

“It does give you a leg up,” says Moriah. “I’m going to get a lot more patient experience than I would at any other medical school. And it’s ungraded patient experience, so there’s no kind of pressure to perform. You can learn from it, without feeling like it’s going to be affecting your chance later on to get a residency.”

Moriah has been in touch with The Wright Center’s first Hometown Scholar, Grace McGrath, a Dunmore resident who entered the program in 2019. “She’s been a great resource,” Moriah says.

Each woman is now part of a unique program. ATSU-SOMA – which bills itself as “The Medical School of the Future” – helps to create a pipeline of exceptional medical and dental students who are committed to serving in the nation’s community health centers. These centers provide affordable care to traditionally underserved populations, including low-income individuals and people who face other barriers to healthcare.

For Moriah, studying in Arizona represents the chance to not only pursue her fulfillment of a career goal but also a more carefree one. In 2020, she and some friends had intended to celebrate their college graduations with a trip to the Southwest, sightseeing at places such as Antelope Canyon and the better-known Grand Canyon. But then the coronavirus pandemic hit and scuttled their travel plans.

Now she is attending a respected medical school in the wide-open West, a place where it can seem the sky’s the limit. 

“While growing up, a medical career was definitely out of my realm of experience; I didn’t know any doctors, aside from my pediatrician,” she says. “But I was raised in the kind of environment where I never doubted that I could be whatever I wanted to be.”

The Hometown Scholars program offers educational opportunities for aspiring physicians, physician assistants and dentists. To learn more, please email or call 570-591-5132.

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