When Mikal Achtner visited Humboldt County in the early 2010s, it wasn’t with thoughts of moving here. It definitely wasn’t with plans to provide medical care to our community. She was visiting a close friend at Humboldt State University while in college herself, earning a degree in biomedical science at the University of Northern Colorado.
Since then, however, Achtner completed that degree and pursued another at the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine. Now, with a pair of hard-earned letters after her name, Mikal Achtner, MD, has returned to this familiar location to practice family medicine.
Achtner is one of six new physicians who have recently moved to Humboldt County to train in the first year of Open Door’s Family Medicine Residency, a teaching program designed and directed in collaboration with St. Joseph Hospital. Her career as a practicing doctor begins here and now, but a variety of life experiences initially led her to medicine.
Growing up in the small town of Oak Creek, Colorado—with a population of 850—Achtner developed an early appreciation for those who supported her underserved community. After stints volunteering for local state parks and the elderly community, she all but guaranteed that undergraduate laboratory work would leave her wanting more.
“I was doing a lot of bench research. It was really fascinating, but I felt like there was something missing,” said Achtner. “So I started volunteering at a local hospital, passing out cookies to cancer patients.” That’s when it clicked for Achtner. Pursuing medicine would satisfy her interest in science while also allowing her to forge human connections.
Between college and medical school, Achtner worked at an assisted living facility as a certified nursing assistant. The job far surpassed her expectations, as she formed close relationships with the residents there. She then spent a couple years working as a medical assistant at a nonprofit pediatric clinic in an underserved part of Aurora, Colorado. By the end of 2015, Achtner had applied to the University of Colorado’s rural medicine track.
Medical school, itself, was yet another clarifying experience. While completing her clinical work—including rotations back through Oak Creek—Achtner cast aside any doubts about choosing family medicine. She continued volunteering too, organizing groups of students with interests in rural and wilderness medicine.
All these experiences guided her when the time came to apply to residency programs. “I knew that I wanted to do a more rural program, so that was one thing that narrowed my search. And I knew I wanted to work with underserved populations,” Achtner said. Also high on her list of priorities was finding an unopposed program—meaning, one based at a hospital unaffiliated with other residencies. Such a program would ensure that opportunities to learn wouldn’t be divvied up among a high volume of doctors with a variety of specialties.
For Achtner, Open Door’s residency program—an unopposed program focused on primary care and situated in an underserved, rural area—checked all three boxes. After meeting the residency team at Open Door and St. Joe’s, Achtner was excited about the prospect of completing her residency on the North Coast. When that prospect became reality via an email on Match Day, the excitement only intensified.
A new residency program like Open Door’s must compete with well-established programs that have trained doctors for over 50 years. While Open Door was her first choice, Achtner admits that it’s a little scary to go into a program that’s brand new. But she realizes that joining our Family Medicine Residency in its inaugural year comes with perks as well. “I think there’s more opportunity to forge your own way here,” she said. “If there’s something you’re interested in, you can advocate for that.”
Achtner is impressed by the support she has felt already from the residency program’s staff, and she appreciates her cohort’s small size—a group of six that had already begun to feel like a tight-knit family after a couple weeks in town. “We were all sitting around a fire, singing songs…down by the river,” Achtner said. “I don’t think many programs can say that they do that for their orientation.”
Exploring the great outdoors is a hobby of Achtner’s, as are painting and traveling. In her time away from the hospital and health center, she’s looking forward to camping, rockhounding, and browsing our thrift shops.
We are grateful for the chance to work with Achtner and impressed by her character—and it appears the feeling is mutual. “Two things that I’ve realized since I’ve been here are just how passionate everybody is about helping the community and being nonjudgmental,” said Achtner. “The name, Open Door, kind of says it all.”