Meet Our People: Matt Gomez, Seddy Altwal, Dr. Kim Tustison

Get to know our students, faculty and staff

Matthew Gomez, Kim Tustison, and Seddy Altwal.

Matthew Gomez

MS3 Matthew Gomez

When third-year UC Riverside medical student Matthew Gomez was a child growing up in Redondo Beach, his biology teacher grandfather, Dave Leach, would spend hours sharing his love for science and technology with him and his cousins. In time, Leach would release the other cousins and focus his attention on Gomez.

“Teaching was his absolute passion, and we spent hours talking about science and biology,” Gomez recalled. “He definitely ignited the spark that would eventually fuel my desire to become a physician,” Gomez said.

But it wasn’t until his sophomore year in high school that the spark lit by Grandpa Leach erupted into a full-blown plan to pursue a career in medicine.

“I have this distinct memory of being in the library and feeling unsure of what my future would look like,” he said. “I began picking up random books on various subjects and skimming through them, seeing if anything would catch my attention. I stumbled upon Gray’s Anatomy and as I was flipping through the pages I got more and more excited. There was a voice in my head saying, ‘This is it! You found it!’ I was completely sold. My mind was made up – I was going to become a doctor.”

“Admittedly, whenever I catch a glimpse of my Gray’s Anatomy textbook these days, I get more of a panic attack than anything else,” he said with a smile.

Gomez started the journey by coming to UCR as an undergraduate. While he worked toward his degree in biology, he participated in a number of community service programs including the Global Medical Brigades, which allowed him to travel to Nicaragua and Honduras and set up free clinics in rural communities.

“After a few of these trips I realized there was an incredible and dire need for free clinics in our own medically underserved community as well,” he said. “Along with some fellow students, we reached out to the medical school to get their help, and true to their mission, they did an incredible job of assisting us in the establishment of this clinic.”

Formed in a partnership with Lestonnac Free Clinics in San Bernardino, the students opened the San Bernardino Free Clinic in November 2015. In the past two years, with the help of passionate and selfless volunteers that include undergraduate students, medical students, attending physicians and the SOM community, the clinic has helped hundreds of underserved individuals.

“The clinics are such a vital part of our medical educational experience, because they not only allow us to learn through hands-on-experience, but they provide a chance to get away from the books and reconnect with patients,” he said. “It reminds us why we are here and what we are working so hard towards.”

During those undergraduate years, Gomez had the opportunity to get to know the leadership within the School of Medicine and soon realized that the school’s mission meshed well with his own.

“I wanted to continue the work I had started as an undergraduate and UCR was the best place for me to do that. I was very impressed by the leadership, and how sincerely dedicated they were, both to the mission of the school as well as to their students.’

Gomez fondly recalled a lunch he had with Senior Associate Dean of Medical Education Paul Lyons, M.D. When it was over, the two had discussed medicine and more for three hours.

“Where else would that ever happen? What other medical school dean would ever spend that much time genuinely getting to know a student?” he said. “It really stood out to me, and made me further realize this is where I was meant to be.”

Matthew Gomez (center, beneath camera) speaks to the UC Regents at UC San Diego.

Gomez’s efforts in the Inland Southern California community have not gone unnoticed. In August 2017 he joined UCR Chancellor Kim A. Wilcox in San Diego for a presentation to the UC Regents.

“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. I remember reading the profiles of the regents whom I would be presenting to and just being blown away. These were some of the most accomplished, intelligent people I’d ever read about,” he said. “Then, as I was walking up to my seat and mentally preparing myself, I looked up to find Janet Napolitano sitting directly across from me. Speaking to a room full of regents would have been intimidating enough, but to do so with the UC president sitting a few feet away was downright petrifying.”

“Thankfully, I think it went well,” he added. “I got to talk to a few of the regents afterwards, and they were not only very caring but made it clear they were impressed with UCR in general and the School of Medicine in particular.”

Just past the halfway point in his medical education, Gomez has begun looking toward the future and his residency. While he initially was considering emergency medicine, his exposure to a variety of fields through the UCRSOM’s Longitudinal Ambulatory Care Experience (LACE) Program has him now considering other options as well.

“Before coming to UCR, I had done a lot of shadowing in emergency rooms and really enjoyed the variety of cases and the range of skills required to treat them. I liked having to always be on your toes, prepared to handle whatever walked through those doors,” he said. “Now, I’m beginning to expand my horizons a bit and considering internal medicine and family medicine as well, because I enjoy forming long-lasting doctor-patient relationships and hearing their full story. That’s not something that I’ll be able to do in emergency medicine.”

In addition to his medical education in the classroom, lab, and clinic, Gomez said he has also learned a lot about himself over the last two years.

“Medical school has the ability to consume you completely – your time, your thoughts, your hobbies, your identity. It can fill you with self-doubt, the idea that ‘I don’t belong’ or that ‘I am not smart enough to be here.’ And it seems that everyone feels like this at one point or another, but we rarely talk about it. It can be pretty isolating,” he said. “Personally, I’ve started seeing a sports psychologist, which has really helped me regain some of my self-confidence and motivation.”

“To my fellow students, I’d like to say that if you are feeling this way, know that you are not alone. We all struggle with these feelings. Being open and honest about these feelings, and reaching out to someone who has experienced them as well instead of putting on a mask of ‘everything is fine’ is the best thing you can do.”

Gomez said that his family, especially his parents and sister, have provided tremendous support to him throughout the journey, and that the family gets together for a group phone call every Sunday evening to catch up and talk about the past week. Even Grandpa Leach, who passed away in 2012, continues to be a big influence.

“While I wish I could share my accomplishments and experiences with him in person, he wrote me letters throughout the years, so I draw a bit of strength from rereading those from time to time,” he said. “I received my acceptance letter to UCR almost two years to the day after he died. I don’t know what that means, but it is something I think about often. It’s a reminder that I am in the right spot, doing what I am meant to be doing.”

Seddy Altwal

Standardized Patient Educator Seddy Altwal shows off his sartorial style and just a few of his “crazy” socks.

On any given day you will probably find Standardized Patient Educator Seddy Altwal roaming the ground floor of the School of Medicine Education Building. However, if you look for him in the staff directory, you will only find “Sari Altwal.” It’s probably easiest to let him explain.

“My family is Jordanian and, in Arabic, my name has three letters, one of which is the equivalent of the letter ‘r.’ In Arabic, ‘r’ rolls, while in English it is softer, and my parents didn’t realize this detail, so they spelled my name in English as ‘Sari.’ That was a big mistake,” he said. “It’s pronounced like ‘Eddie’ with an s in front of it, but people always pronounce it as ‘sorry,’ as in ‘Sorry I mispronounced your name.’”

When he wasn’t explaining how to properly pronounce his name to classmates and teachers at UC San Diego, he completed dual degrees in microbiology and theater, graduating in 2011. Initially he figured he would have to choose between two distinctly different career paths – either science or acting – but he learned he could apply both skill sets as a standardized patient.

Standardized patients, also known as SPs, are people who have been trained to portray patients in specific medical situations at the UCR School of Medicine and other medical schools. SPs are seen by medical students in clinical training settings and then participate in the evaluation process of how the student performed in the scenario.

“Never in a million years did I ever think that I would be able to marry both of my passions into one career. You can just imagine how thrilled I was to find out that I could work as an actor in a scientific/medical field,” he said. “I started working as a standardized patient at UCSD in 2011. Since then I’ve worked for Western University, UCI, The National Board of Chiropractic Examiners, and of course UCR.”

Altwal became the standardized patient educator for the UCR School of Medicine in June 2017 and says he couldn’t be happier.

“Having a hand in shaping the future of health care in California is tremendously rewarding. Now I have even more involvement as an SP Educator and I get to be part of a team working towards a common goal,” he added.

Altwal said it can be difficult to describe his job because the responsibilities shift day-to-day and hour-to-hour.

“The job is like being a casting agent, actor, director, editor, producer, teacher, and admin assistant all in one,” he said. “I don’t have a ‘typical day,’ but the days are usually similar, week to week.”

“Mondays tend to be prep days, Fridays tend to be wrapping up days, and the middle of the week is when things get really busy and you’ll see me switch into running shoes,” he added. “The work never ends, and the opportunities for research and compiling useful data for future improvements in this position are limitless.”

Since joining UCR, Altwal has worked with Standardized Patient Program Director Amanda Lockhart to overhaul the Patient Instructor Program, which certifies SPs to assist facilitators during clinical skills instruction.

“I was very excited and eager to get my hands on that program because I saw plenty of potential for growth. I am happy to say that we have successfully implemented these ideas and are seeing great results,” he said. “Because of our size, I can quickly see the results of what I do, and can see the impact we have upon our students.”

As an SP, Altwal was frequently seen by medical student wearing only his underwear or a gown, but as the SP educator he is now known for his smart and fashionable dress, including a collection of what he calls “crazy” socks.

“I enjoy fashion, but I hate shopping,” he said. “There is no secret website or extra-trendy hipster store outside of the mall. My fitted suits are from J.C. Penny and everything else is from H&M.”

“As for my socks, they have come from different places and different people. But according to an article I once read, people who wear crazy socks are rebellious, expressive, and successful. So apparently I am a genius.”

In his free time, Altwal enjoys “outdoorsy” sports like snowboarding, diving and spearfishing and is an avid board game player who would love to start up a gaming club in the SOM. He even was a contestant on the Price is Right in 2013, narrowly missing out on winning a new car.

“I made it on stage and won some camping gear,” he said. “Then I won $7.31 instead of a new car.”

Altwal said he loves working with his colleagues on the ground floor.

“I love working with my team; everyone has been super kind and friendly,” he said. “Amanda has been a wonderful leader and fellow SP Educators Maureen Barley and Margaret Montalvan, and SP Coordinators Mayra Santoyo and Maria Luna are my ‘colorful M&M’s’ who I can’t live without. I get to be part of a team working towards a common goal. Being part of a family and having a purpose are vital aspects of a job for me.”

“My only challenge now is learning to appreciate Riverside’s summer weather,” he said, smiling.

Dr. Kim Tustison

Dr. Kim Tustison

Editor’s Note: Usually for these profiles we ask an individual a series of questions via email, and then weave it into a story. However, in this case, Dr. Kim Tustison’s responses told her story better than we ever could, so we simply made a few stylistic edits and present it in its entirety.

What is your position and title?

I am an assistant clinical professor of Obstetrics/Gynecology, the third-year Ob/Gyn content specialist, associate program director for the Obstetrics/Gynecology Residency Program, tutor for Doctoring I & II, lecturer and facilitator for clinical skills, and chair of the UCR School of Medicine Admissions Committee.

What is your medical specialty? Why did you choose that field?

I became an Ob/Gyn much to my own surprise, since I thought I was going to be an emergency room doctor while on the side running a party planning business and authoring adolescent paranormal fiction.

I had planned my whole third year schedule around two facts: First, I was planning a pregnancy, and second, I had absolutely no interest in obstetrics and gynecology. My requests for my block schedule were based on my plan to get pregnant on the exact date I had intended – I would miss my Ob/Gyn block and not have to participate in such a gross and disgusting rotation until my fourth year, when I could make it up during my vacation block over the summer and when intense gynecological surgeons would take vacation, thus making my rotation lighter and easier.

Despite my plan, which included manipulating my own cycles with oral contraceptive pills in order to conceive perfectly in time to deliver the weekend after finishing a block and before Christmas for added holiday leave time, I didn’t get pregnant that month. Instead, I got pregnant four weeks later, which was the worst possible scenario because it meant I had to start my Ob/Gyn rotation while I was 36 weeks pregnant in the dead of a Philadelphia winter.

But surprisingly, it wasn’t that bad. The work I was doing during the rotation was fulfilling and interesting such that I could wake up at 4:00 a.m. and jump out of bed, 36 weeks pregnant, and catch the train in the freezing winter weather to get to the hospital. I knew that if I could be happy doing that, I could be happy in an Ob/Gyn career for the rest of my life.

I was also deeply moved during the rotation by two particular patients. The first was a pregnant 14-year-old. When I asked her what her menstrual cycles were like prior to pregnancy, she told me that she “only had the one.” As I walked out of the room, I saw her mother, who was younger than I was, out in the waiting room dancing and celebrating with her sisters, saying “We’re gonna have a baby!” I could only think how exciting it would have been for the patient to have understood her own body and the consequences of her choices so that instead of giving birth as a terrified 14 year old, she would be the one excited about having a baby in her late 20’s or early 30’s.

I also met a 17-year-old who, while she shared my due date that was still a month away, was in preterm labor, something that is common amongst women living in low socio-economic conditions. This patient’s mother was also younger than I was, so in just one week I’d met two grandmas-to-be who I was older than.

This teen thought she had made it in life. She was in love and about to be a mom, had arranged an independent study program so she would become the first ever in her family to finish high school, and she and her boyfriend had saved enough money for a down-payment on a trailer that her mom was going to let them park in her yard. Seeing all that she had accomplished, I wondered how much more she could have achieved in life if she had the additional knowledge of how to control her own fertility.

I realized that I wanted to be the doctor who could make a difference for young girls like these, and thus my path was set to become an Ob/Gyn physician.

Tell us about yourself. What is your background? Do you have any passions or hobbies?

I was born in Florida, lived in Texas and Mississippi, but mostly grew up in Georgia. I went to Brigham Young University and majored in biology because that interested me. I got married before I started my senior year, and after graduation I did basic science research while my husband was in graduate school. When he was close to finishing graduate school, he asked, “What do you want to do now that I’m graduating and you won’t really have to work anymore?” I blurted out on the spot that I wanted to go to medical school, and the journey began.

I enrolled in community college to complete my only outstanding pre-requisite course and we decided it was time to start our family. That summer I delivered our son and a little later my husband finished his doctorate. He defended it on a Thursday and that weekend we moved from St. Louis to Philadelphia and I began my post baccalaureate/master’s of medical science program the following Monday.

After my master’s degree was complete, I matriculated into medical school at Drexel University in Philadelphia. As I said earlier I gave birth to my daughter during third year.

During my final year at Drexel and in Philadelphia, it snowed like it had never snowed before, and I thankfully matched for residency a little further south, at the University of Virginia. As residency graduation approached, it was again one of the snowiest winters on record, and I began looking for academic positions in places that it was not likely to snow.

I loved the underserved patient population I would get to treat in Inland Southern California, and the prospect of developing the curriculum for UCR’s third year students and building the new Ob/Gyn residency program was what won me over and encouraged me to move to a state in which I had only set foot about four times ever, including my interview trip.

As far as hobbies, I enjoy baking pies and I also make my own jam. I have been sewing since I was about six years old and credit my surgical skills to my mother’s basic sewing lessons in addition to my excellent residency training. You may see me wearing dresses I have sewn for myself, and if you ever see me in the operating room, I will definitely be wearing a flashy, bright, home-made scrub cap under the boring, required disposable surgical cap.

I’m also a huge fan of adolescent paranormal fiction and will one day finish the book I started writing in medical school about teen werewolves and vampires.

What attracted you to becoming a faculty member at the UCR School of Medicine?

In the last few months of my third year of residency, I was the chief resident on labor and delivery. It was the middle of the night, and I had been pushing with a patient for hours trying to get her delivered. When the time for delivery was finally imminent, I asked my nurse to call my intern. She laughed and said, “Dr. Tustison, you must be so tired, you mean the attending, right?” I guess I was tired because it took me longer than it should have to remember that I had to have my attending in the room, though all I really wanted was to walk the intern through the delivery. I did some self-evaluation afterward and realized I was an academician in the making all along.

I had received the department wide resident teaching award four times over, received one of eight GME teaching awards open to all 900+ residents within the university, and I received the Gold Humanism in Medicine award as a resident. Despite all that, until that night I hadn’t put it into perspective that my true career goals wouldn’t be met unless I was teaching future clinicians. Once I had it all figured out and my career path was set, I went on to receive the All-University Graduate Teaching award just before completing residency.

UC Riverside was just the most perfect fit for my career goals. I wanted to teach medical students and residents, and I identified so intensely and emotionally with the mission of serving the medically underserved of Inland Southern California.

Tell us about your role as chair of the admissions committee? What does that entail?

I am still quite new in my role as the chair of the admissions committee and thankfully receiving plenty of mentoring guidance from Associate Dean of Pre-Clerkship Curriculum Chris Lytle and Senior Associate Dean of Student Affairs Neal Schiller. Along with the input from the rest of the committee, I help determine which applicants are appropriate for an interview. Tammy Clawson is a fantastic director for the admissions committee and handles most of the administrative planning that goes into an interview day, along with help and support from the rest of the team.

On interview days, I meet the applicants and orient the faculty to their roles as interviewers. The committee again reviews the applicants’ files with the additional information from the interview day and they are presented at our regular meetings.

I help coordinate the reviewers’ scores of applicants, plan the agenda of the meeting, and conduct the meeting where we discuss each interviewed applicant. After the admissions committee meetings and all the scores are totaled, Dean Schiller and I discuss the students to whom we will be making offers of acceptance based on their admissions committee score.

We also coordinate recruitment efforts to help attract the accepted students we think embody the mission of UCR SOM.

In total, there are 12 interview days, 14 admissions committee meetings, and countless hours pondering over which applicants will be the best fit for our school and our purpose.

What is the most exciting part about working here at the School of Medicine? What are the challenges you face?

This academic year, I was asked to join the academic team for 50% of my time. In this role, I get to teach Doctoring 1&2, help with part of clinical skills, and work with the clerkship coordination committee. The most exciting thing for me is seeing understanding set in on a student’s face as I teach or explain something.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how much I love it when a shy student is finally able to open up and obtain a full sexual history without showing how embarrassed they might be.

In my clinical half, getting to watch a student deliver a baby for the first time is an absolute joy. I try to find an appropriate level of involvement for a student in every procedure whether it is holding a retractor in surgery or actually removing a segment of a Fallopian tube in the midst of an operation and help them understand why that role, no matter how simple, matters. I think that when students know why it is easier to understand the basic concepts and apply those to more challenging situations.

Where do you see the School of Medicine in the future?

Of course the School of Medicine will continue to grow and build on the traditions we are setting now. I see us as a premier institution for educating the future physicians of Riverside County and Inland Southern California, both in undergraduate and graduate medical education.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

I love dark chocolate, anything that sparkles, and almost always have snacks in my office – including dark chocolate, of course.

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