Dr. “Mo” said goodbye to his patients at the Orlando VA clinic and reflected on what they had taught him. Patience. Trust. The power of simple, compassionate words. As a resident in UCF’s first internal medicine residency program, Almatmed Abdelsalam, (left), known to patients and colleagues as Mo, had worked at the Osceola Regional and Orlando VA Medical Centers. On June 8, he will be one of the first 16 graduates of the medical school’s legacy residency program, begun just five years after the school began.

That residency program led to a UCF-Hospital Corporation of America partnership that has created 14 new residency programs and one fellowship in Central and North Central Florida in the past two years. More programs are on the way. At their graduation ceremony, UCF leaders will talk about the first residents as pioneers, whose efforts are helping to bring more physicians to the community.

On this recent day, Abdelsalam reflected on being part of a new program and about his patients over the last three years – especially the veterans he’d helped with PTSD and depression on top of chronic conditions like diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Many were initially tough to reach emotionally, which made caring for their complex medical issues even more challenging. But he had earned their trust by learning about their lives. He’d asked about their kids, their hobbies. He’d called and texted them. He’d become buddies with beloved Pearl, a veteran’s service dog who accompanied her human to every clinic visit.

“Saying goodbye, you realize you built up a relationship, a trust the past three years,” he said. “It wasn’t always easy. But you can’t help someone take care of their diabetes if you don’t know and understand them. These moments together are what make you.”

After graduation, Abdelsalam is going to Macon, Georgia, a medically underserved area, to become a hospitalist. Such doctors specialize in primary care for patients who are hospitalized with acute illnesses or complications from chronic diseases. He said the specialty allows him to treat and learn from multiple areas of medicine while still developing relationships with patients and their families. He also likes the fast pace of acute hospital care.

After graduating from medical school at Benghazi University Faculty of Medicine, Abdelsalam earned his Master’s degree at the UCF College of Medicine’s Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences. There, he researched Crohn’s disease and taught pre-med students. He also taught medical students while training at Osceola Regional and the Orlando VA. He says teaching and caring for diverse patients has made him a better communicator. He’s learned to be simple, tell sick people what they need to know, not try to impress them with fancy scientific words.

“On any day in the clinic or hospital you can say something that will make you look smart,” he said. “Yeah, I get to look smart, but I might confuse my patient. As a physician I care for all spectrums of the community, all levels of education and intelligence. My patients don’t need a lecture. The simpler you can make it, the more you know.”

Dr. Leslie Soto (center) and her husband, Dr. Arnaldo Reyes, are both graduating from UCF’s program. He is going on to a fellowship in sleep medicine at the University of Florida. She’ll be working as a hospitalist in Gainesville. They want to stay in Florida after their training.

Soto expressed pride and gratitude in being part of building a new residency program. She and others said they faced challenges and hurdles. There were no senior residents to guide them. Their hospitals were learning how to accommodate and teach young doctors. “But those challenges made me really prepared,” she said. “I feel I’m able to do anything I can to help patients. We’re all proud to be part of the legacy, of having helped UCF grow its residency program so much.”

UCF resident Dr. Zahra Ahmad (right) had hoped to stay in Central Florida but learned recently that her husband was accepted into a medical fellowship in Cleveland. So she is looking to become a hospitalist there. As the medical school’s first residents, she said physicians were anxious to prove themselves. “We wanted to leave some grand footsteps behind for those who followed,” she said. “We came with big expectations. We’ll always be remembered as the first class. We worked hard and wanted to prove ourselves.

“My residency has been the best three years of my life.”