Jeanne Alvarez, Medical Director of Las Clinicas Del Norte, in El Rito, was named the 2021 Medical Provider of the Year by the New Mexico Primary Care Association, during its Sept. 16 award ceremony.
Alvarez was shocked by the news.
“I found out I won the award the day before the conference,” she said. “The CEO and president of the board of Las Clinicas Del Norte stood up and said some really nice things about me. I couldn’t believe it.”
Alvarez has spent most of her adult life in the healthcare field. Born and raised in Guam, she didn’t arrive in the U.S. until she was 18 years old, but it didn’t take her long to start working toward her career once she was here. Upon arriving, she enrolled in college and went on to obtain three degrees in nursing.
After working for a couple different clinics out of state, she finally made her way to El Rito in 2008, where she landed a job as a nurse practitioner at Las Clinicas.
El Rito is a low-income, rural area, where many patients come in without insurance. This is partly why Alvarez took the job - to help take care of an underserved community.
“I strive for excellence, and we work really hard here,” she said. “Just the simple fact that I’m serving people in need is what brought me here and what has kept me here.”
Alvarez worked for the clinic for several years before leaving for a short stint at a different clinic. But she returned, and eventually assumed the position of medical director when her supervisor stepped down.
While she was excited to start her new position, Alvarez had a big challenge ahead of her: the pandemic had just made its way to New Mexico and, just like every other healthcare clinic around the country, medical providers at Las Clinicas were at an extremely high risk of contracting COVID.
Alvarez came up with a safety plan for her staff and stuck with it throughout the following months. And to this day, only two workers at her clinic have tested positive for the virus, and both contracted it outside of work.
According to a study from Massachusetts General Hospital, frontline healthcare workers had a nearly 12 times higher risk of testing positive for COVID, at the start of the pandemic. This means the odds were against Alvarez, but she beat them and kept her team safe and COVID-free during the heaviest periods of the pandemic.
Earlier in the year, the New Mexico Primary Care Association announced its annual award, asking healthcare professionals to nominate the most deserving worker at their clinic. Entrants were asked to submit a letter about the person they were nominating, explaining why he or she ought to be recognized.
Without her knowledge, two of Alvarez’s co-workers, who’d worked alongside of her for years, nominated her for the award.
Their letter about Alvarez was very moving, said Association CEO Eileen Goode.
“Picking a winner is a challenge every year,” she said. “And we’re always amazed when we read the submissions that we get. But when we got the nomination for Jeanne, we knew she was the ideal person for the award.”
Goode said that Jeanne had also been volunteering at the Association for years, training fellow healthcare workers.
“She is always working,” Goode said. “There are times when I would get late work-related texts from her, at night, because she’s catching up on whatever work needs to be done.”
Alvarez’s coworker Chief Operations Operator Brandi Manzanares was one of the people who submitted a letter nominating Alvarez.
Manzanares said she was the “obvious choice,” when she heard about the call-out for nominations.
In her letter, she wrote, “During the beginning of the pandemic, our Medical Director resigned. Ms. Alvarez bravely took on the position to lead LCDN through uncertain times. She quickly jumped into action and worked closely with administration to come up with a plan to ensure that services continued to be provided both in person and through Telehealth during such challenging times.”
Manzanares said it’s hard to keep Alvarez at home. Whenever there’s a code blue, she goes to the clinic to help in whatever way she can.
“What separates Jeanne from everyone else is that this is not just a job for her,” she said. “This is her passion, and I think that’s something that needs to be recognized.”
Most doctors at the Las Clinicas will see around 46 patients on a very busy day, Manzanares said. But Alvarez tripled that number, once vaccinating around 120 patients in a day.
Manzanares’ letter states, “When COVID was first identified and everyone was struggling to readjust to the pandemic, she and her support staff weathered the cold and wind while working out of our van to provide services to community members, not only with COVID, but with other emergent issues.”
She wrote that once vaccinations became available, Alvarez and her team immediately began distributing vaccines to eligible patients, and they created a process for intake, vaccine distribution and follow-up.
“Currently, she is still conducting outreach to provide COVID vaccines and COVID tests in the surrounding communities, taking our mobile unit to various locations in Rio Arriba, Santa Fe and Los Alamos counties.
Regardless of all the work she put in, and continues to put in, Alvarez remains humble and appreciative of the award, not wanting to take all the credit.
“I may have won the award, but I couldn’t have done it without my team,” Alvarez said. “I have to acknowledge that this was a team effort: from the front desk people to the medical assistants to the billing department.”
Alvarez continues to take care of patients while completing her duties as medical director, and she stays on top of any changes to protocol by attending staff meetings.
She is one of many healthcare workers who has been working themselves to the bone during the pandemic, but her ability to take on a leadership role at such a chaotic time and to keep her team safe, made her a true leader, Goode said.
“When healthcare workers were stepping out, at the start of the pandemic, Jeanne was stepping in,” she said.
Alvarez beat out many other nominees for the award. Other categories for the association’s annual awards include dental, behavioral health and outstanding clinic team member. Alvarez received a plaque -- and, of course, bragging rights.