Alexandra Gutierrez, MD, MPH
Culture and family are key considerations when caring for her patients
Alexandra Gutierrez knew from early childhood that she wanted to be a doctor. Even when her mother suggested she try a profession other than medicine, she never even considered doing anything else. She remembers spending weekends going to work with her father, a neurologist, and waiting in his office while he rounded. She liked the way he developed close relationships with patients that he followed for years.
Although neurology was intriguing, it was the gastrointestinal (GI) tract that fascinated her and just made sense. “The physiology of the GI tract is intuitive and the interventions and procedures excite me,” said Gutierrez, a professor of medicine in the Division of Gastroenterology.
After completing medical school at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, OH, she did her residency at Cornell Medical Center in New York, NY, where she is from originally. While completing her residency, she developed a passion for the care of patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a group of disorders including Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis that cause inflammation of the digestive tract.
Because she was bilingual, she saw many Hasidic Jewish families that immigrated through Spanish-speaking countries during World War II and spoke only Yiddish and Spanish. She became keenly aware of the complexity of medical management and the rewards of developing relationships with patients living with a chronic disease like IBD. It was the opportunity for providing continuity of care and developing long-lasting relationships with patients that led her to choose this area of medicine as the focus of her career.
In it for the long haul
Patients with IBD tend to develop these diseases in their 20s and often need long-term medical management, since there is no cure. “I take care of my patients for their entire lives. Frequently they are quite ill when we meet, which makes for an incredible relationship once their health improves. You get to know the patient and their family and loved ones who support them though the disease flares,” said Gutierrez. “I sometimes joke that I probably know most of them better than their partners because I’ve cared for them for such a long time.”
Gutierrez’ parents are both from Colombia and made sure she grew up to be fluent in both English and Spanish. She feels that even when she speaks to her Spanish-speaking patients in English, just knowing her background and comfort with Spanish provides them with reassurance and empathy, since she understands and shares many of their cultural values.
“My patients know that I would go to bat for them,” said Gutierrez. “A patient who has IBD needs somebody to be their advocate and help guide them through their complicated medical care and therapeutic maze.”
Creating a diverse community
A major goal of the School of Medicine is to enhance diversity among its physicians. “Patients want to be cared for by somebody that they can relate to,” said Gutierrez. “It may be a love of food, a city of birth, a soft spot for animals, or whatever it is. When patients choose a physician, they often start by going to the website and seeing if they can relate in some way to that physician.”
Gutierrez makes it a priority to mentor trainees at all levels. “There’s an incredible satisfaction in mentoring somebody to travel a similar professional path, while still succeeding independently,” said Gutierrez. “My patients are often excited to see trainees because they realize the importance of physicians understanding IBD. More importantly, as young physicians ‘leave the nest,’ it creates a network of outstanding care delivered to IBD patients around the country.”
Gutierrez also teaches the gastrointestinal lecture for the MD students’ medical Spanish program and participated in this year’s Latino Medical Student Association national conference, which was hosted by Washington University. As an annual lecturer at the School of Medicine’s Mini-Medical School, she even introduces IBD to a broad audience of adult learners from the St. Louis community.
The importance of food and family
A self-proclaimed “foodie,” Gutierrez loves trying the many different cuisines St. Louis has to offer – from classic French to rustic Nicaraguan. She often bonds with her patients over restaurants. “When patients come in to get a colonoscopy, the first question I’ll ask them after the consent is ‘Where are you going to eat after this?’” Some patients even research local restaurants and menus and trade recommendations with Gutierrez.
Family is also very important to many of her patients, and it is equally important to Gutierrez. She is very close with her parents and brother. She met her husband, Martin Reis, MD, now an assistant professor of radiology at the School of Medicine’s Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology, after she was recruited to Washington University from her first faculty position at the University of Alabama. Together they have a two-year-old son. Gutierrez has a small play area in her office to keep him busy when she brings him to the office.
“I tell my patients I have a son so I can relate the challenges of having a chronic disease and caring for a child,” said Gutierrez. She stresses the importance of spending time caring for both her son and her patients. “I want everybody to have the best. I want my son to have the best mom and I want my patients to get the best care.”