As a kid, Anna Chollet wanted to become a veterinarian. But after working on a pig farm she decided she'd rather treat people because they have more to share.
"With humans you get to take in the desires of your patients and the goals of their lives," she said.
One of 12 medical school graduates to this summer join the Santa Rosa Family Medicine Residency Program at Sutter Medical Center, Chollet said her chosen field also continues a family focus on social issues.
"There was no one really medical in my family," said the 27-year-old from St. Louis. "But with a mother who is an environmentalist and a grandmother who is a Methodist minister, you grow up thinking of things larger than yourself."
Chollet and other new doctors also have to think of such large things as the future of health care and what it will be once politicians, insurance companies, drug firms, the voters and whoever's in the White House get through reforming it.
Yet, a sample of future family physicians suggests that if their idealism holds and they can balance student debt against a non-glamorous, relatively underpaid specialty, they'll make a people-centered difference.
Family medicine, said Chollet, "is not the glory job. Not like the ultimate specialists and being the respected surgeon," but she prefers its close connection with patients.
"A family doctor tries to understand the whole self. You get to know your patient as a person, not a specimen. It's not just what pill can I give this person."
It's the same for Noreen Singh, who grew up in Fremont, went to Yale Medical School and was drawn to the residency program because of its "strong focus on prevention, holistic care and wellness.
"Illness doesn't just stand alone. It's often a product of a person's environment," said Singh, 27. "Even in a limited time there's always the opportunity to connect with your patients and hear the story that is the underlying framework for their ailments."
For example, she said that some of her patients at the Vista Family Health Center, which partners with the residency program, are Cambodians who include survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide.
"They come in saying they feel dizzy or have a headache or chest pains. If I just approach their treatment from a purely medical standpoint, it's not enough," she said. "In going deeper, I might find that they are re-experiencing the triggers that take them back to the awful things they lived through."
To further her own understanding of that culture, Singh has joined a Cambodian women's group that meets regularly at the health center.
"Family doctors have to be comfortable with ambiguity," said Amy Marietta, a first-year resident from Illinois. "Sometimes we don't know why a person is sick. It may have to do with external forces at play and we have to be comfortable with that. We have to be good at collecting information."
Marietta, age 33, majored in Spanish and Latin American studies in college and worked on affordable housing in Chile.
After that she considered becoming a nurse like her mother but said, "I thought about how complex health care is in this country and maybe I'd want to start a clinic. And I also want to inform and change health policy. Family-medicine training is a good path for that."