UTMB alums, the Billingses, share a passion for rural medicine and their alma mater

UTMB graduates Dr. Adrian Billings and Susan Billings met at UTMB. It was the fall of 1993, he was a graduate student, and she was a physical therapy student. He asked one of her classmates if she might be interested, and the couple soon began dating. Today, the Billingses live and work in Alpine, Texas, and they have three sons. Although they are in a remote part of the state, the Billingses remain closely tied to the place where they met and where they got their start as health care professionals. The couple has also given generously to their alma mater—the Billingses established three scholarship endowments for the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, School of Health Professions, and the John Sealy School of Medicine. We posed the following questions to them about their careers and what UTMB means to them and why it was important that they give back.

Q: What led to your decisions to pursue careers in health care?

Susan Billings: As a high school student, I enjoyed learning about how the human body functioned, especially the musculoskeletal and nervous systems. When investigating career paths, I felt that physical therapy would allow me to study what I enjoyed and to work in a field where I could actively help people to improve their mobility.
Adrian Billings: I worked for a veterinarian in Del Rio while I was in high school, and I really enjoyed my time working with the veterinarian. I left Del Rio after graduation from high school with the goal of going to veterinary school. However, after my freshman year in college, I returned to Del Rio and worked as an anesthesia technician at Val Verde Regional Medical Center. The nurses and physicians in the hospital treated me like a medical student. After that summer, I returned to college with a change of plans: to become a rural family physician and return home to practice full spectrum family medicine.

Q: What appealed to you about UTMB?

Susan Billings: UTMB appealed to me because, back in 1993, it was one of the few schools that offered the Master of Physical Therapy degree. Galveston was also not too from the Dallas/Fort Worth area where I grew up.
Adrian Billings: I really appreciated that Galveston was not too big of a town. I grew up in Del Rio, and I was not looking to go to school in a large metropolitan area for medical school. Also, UTMB has a long-storied history of taking care of indigent patients from all over the state, including west Texas.

Q: When you look back on your time at UTMB, what comes to mind?

Susan Billings: Several memories come to mind. First of all, I think of all of the lifelong friends I made in my PT class of 1996. We still get together and laugh about shared stories while catching up on where life has taken everyone. I also remember meeting Adrian in the Morgan Hall dormitory when he was a new graduate student, and I was a new PT student. He wasn't a piano player but decided to try to learn to play the melody for "A Groovy Kind of Love," on the piano in the lobby. I remember hearing the tune drift up to my room on the second floor. Finally, I think of all of my professors who laid the foundation for building my skills as a physical therapist. Dr. Christine Baker was a great mentor in my goal to pursue pediatric PT.
Adrian Billings: I met my wife, Susan, at UTMB, and we had our first son at Jennie Sealy Hospital when I was a fourth-year medical student. So, Blake is a BOI. I also remember Thursday UTMB nights at Sonny's Place where we participated in "interdisciplinary socialization" with students from the other UTMB schools.

Q: What aspect of your training at UTMB best prepared you for your current careers?

Susan Billings
: I feel that I received a well-rounded and thorough training in physical therapy that laid the foundation for me to eventually become a board certified pediatric physical therapist. The research projects that we participated in helped me to understand the importance of evidence-based practice.
Adrian Billings: As a graduate student, I had the opportunity to do tick field work in rural south Texas and several months in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. As a medical student, UTMB gave me the opportunity to spend five months of my training in rural areas, including Alpine. I went to medical school fairly certain that I wanted to be a rural family physician. Those rural rotations really solidified that dream to serve and practice medicine in a rural area. I am really grateful that UTMB enabled me to explore and experience rural medicine as a medical student.

Q: What made you decide to devote your professional lives to rural medicine?

Susan Billings: We moved to Alpine, Texas, in 2007 in order for Adrian to fulfill his National Health Service Corps obligation of practicing in a medically underserved area. He had always wished to practice full spectrum family medicine, so this move was part of that plan. Although working in a rural area was not something that I had thought about as a PT student, I was willing to try it out. After Adrian completed his four-year commitment, we decided to stay in Alpine. I have been able to practice pediatric PT as a school-based physical therapist for the past 16 years that we have lived here. I really enjoy traveling to various school districts in the Big Bend region and working with students of all ages and abilities.
Adrian Billings: Susan and I married just before starting medical school. I did not want to burden her with my medical school debt, so I applied for and was awarded a National Health Service Corps Scholarship from the federal government. This scholarship was perfect for me, and it allowed me to graduate from medical school without financial debt. I was born and raised in Del Rio which was, and is, a health professional shortage area. Limited access to quality health care was something that my family and friends experienced growing up in Del Rio. I felt a calling to go to medical school to attempt to improve access to health care in the rural areas of the Texas-Mexico border. As a Presbyterian, I also felt a calling to practice medicine and serve rural and vulnerable populations. I have been blessed and privileged to have a career in rural medicine. I would not change a thing.

Q: What is the most appealing aspect of your current work?
Susan Billings: The most appealing aspect is helping students learn to access and to participate in their natural school environment. By working on meaningful skills all around the school campus, instead of being inside of a clinic, students are practicing movement in the same space that they will actually use the skills that they are learning. I also enjoy helping students obtain the right pieces of adaptive equipment, such as wheelchairs, gait trainers, and standers, that will enable mobility and engagement around the school campus and in the classroom.
Adrian Billings: Definitely, the relationships with our patients and communities we serve. I have practiced my entire 16-year career in the Big Bend area. I have always performed hospital work and clinic work in Alpine, but over the years I have participated in clinics in other towns out here as well including Sanderson, Marfa, Presidio, Fort Stockton, and Fort Davis. I have made incredible relationships with patients and these communities. I have delivered babies and now some of the babies I delivered are in high school. It has been really rewarding watching these babies grow up.

Q: What did it mean to you, Dr. Billings, to be recognized with the GSBS Distinguished Alumni Award?

Adrian Billings: The experience was very humbling and unexpected for me. The PhD I received from UTMB helped me become more analytical and made me a rural physician with a better ability to practice in an under-resourced environment such as a critical access hospital and federally qualified health center. The award also helped me realize that I still owe UTMB so much for the education and training that I received.

Q: Why did you decide to give back to UTMB?
Susan Billings: We realized how UTMB had played such a formative role in our lives. Without our education at UTMB we would not have the foundation of skills to be where we are today. Because we met in Galveston on the UTMB campus, it is even more of a special place!
Adrian Billings: UTMB gave Susan and me the opportunity to achieve our dreams of becoming health care providers. We still feel so privileged that UTMB gave us the opportunity to matriculate into UTMB and feel indebted to UTMB for that opportunity. As such, we want to enable more rural students to follow their educational dreams.

Q: What does it mean to you to be able to help students pursue their own dreams with the scholarships you created at UTMB?

Susan Billings: I hope that the scholarships will encourage students to persevere in their endeavors and to have a little less stress from the burden of paying for their education. It is fun to think about how Adrian and I were once students at UTMB and now have come full circle and are hopefully helping current students at UTMB.
Adrian Billings: The rural health care workforce has been chronically under-resourced. Susan and I both are attempting to do our small part to advocate for the need for a more robust rural health care workforce through the establishment of these scholarships.

Q: What would you tell others who are considering giving to UTMB as you have?

Susan Billings: I would tell others who are considering giving to UTMB to think of the impact that they will have on students' lives for years to come. It brings me joy to know that our gift will keep on helping students long after we are gone.
Adrian Billings: Please give to UTMB to enable students to follow their dreams! Any small gift that you can give to UTMB students may mean a significant difference to a UTMB student and whether they can achieve their dream of higher education. Any gift you can give will be impactful!