First-year student pharmacist Catalina Yepez, age 29, is one of five students in the inaugural class in the rural health track. The track is part of the college’s Rural Health Initiative to recruit, educate, and embed pharmacists in rural communities across Washington state.

Catalina Yepez pictured in her hometown of Prosser, an agricultural community located in central Washington.

I was born and raised in Prosser, Washington a town of roughly 6,000 people nestled in central Washington where access to medical services are limited. Most of the people in Prosser work in agriculture and my family was no different. My mother worked in a cherry factory for 28 years and my father at a potato packaging plant. In 2011, my father was laid off after his factory was acquired by ConAgra Foods. I realized then that I needed to get a higher education and decided to go into health care as I always loved biology and helping others while growing up. I’m the first in my family to pursue a professional health care degree and I am pursuing the rural health track to better serve and advocate for my community while providing a better future for my family.

As the oldest child in my family, I was the designated interpreter for all appointments in my household. At the age of 9, my parents tasked me with doing everything from setting up the internet to going to doctors’ appointments. I remember praying that my mother would not have any questions because I was not a certified translator. Many of the Spanish-speaking population in the Yakima Valley and the Tri-Cities area also face a language barrier and are not aware of the resources available to them. From personal experience, I know that my mother always felt more comfortable with a Spanish-speaking doctor. She was more willing to voice concerns about her health when the doctor understood her native language. I hope that the rural health track will allow me to become a stronger liaison for Spanish-speaking and underserved communities while bridging the health care gap.

Many people in my community, including several people in my family, suffer from type 2 diabetes. Knowing that diabetes is more prevalent among certain groups including racial and ethnic minorities, and those with lower income and education levels (my family checks off all these boxes), motivates me to become knowledgeable in preventative health disease state management to better serve people like my father so that he can remain in good health for himself and his family. Small changes in these community offerings could have large impacts on patient health, their quality of life, and the field of pharmacy. My goal as a future pharmacist is to educate my community in making smarter lifestyle choices in diet and exercise so that they can live longer, healthier lives.

While we have clinics in Prosser to handle minor health conditions, a major health event could be the difference in saving a life. Major surgeries and other procedures are referred to hospitals in Tri-Cities and Yakima. Getting to these places could be a 45-minute drive. I witnessed this challenge to access firsthand when my uncle suffered a heart attack in Prosser but could only be treated at the hospital in the Tri-Cities. It is my hope that programs like the rural health track will help to embed quality health care providers in the far reaches of the state like Prosser.

A typical day for me starts at 4:30 a.m. I get ready to drive 45 minutes to the Pacific Northwest University campus in Yakima and arrive between 6 and 7am so that I can study before class without distraction. I get home at around 6:30 in the evening. This is the only time in my day when I have a spare moment to be with my son who is now 18 months. After putting him to bed, I have some time to study and prep for the next day of classes. My husband is employed at the Walmart Distribution Center in Grandview, Washington where he works 12-hour shifts on the weekends from 3am to 3pm so that I can go to class on the weekdays and pursue my degree. This path has been difficult trying to juggle childcare and intense coursework, but I’m grateful for the sacrifices that my family has made, and continue to make, to support me. What keeps me going is the hope that I can provide a better life for my family and son and I hope this program will give me the tools so that I can apply my education and skills to better serve rural communities.