We’re honored to announce Maier Gutierrez and Associates’ first Unsung Hero of 2022, Dr. Christine Estrada. Christine is a Hospice and Palliative Medicine physician at MountainView Hospital in northern Las Vegas. She has been helping families cope with difficult times for almost 16 years yet says making these times easier allows her to feel like she’s done her job well. Because of her dedication to such a difficult job, we’ve made her the Unsung Hero for January 2022!

We want to thank Dr. Estrada for allowing us the opportunity to get to know her better, as well as explaining the complexities of her job and her role for her patients and their loved ones. We know having someone as caring and thoughtful as Christine here in Las Vegas is a significant asset for our community. Therefore, we interviewed Dr. Estrada, so you could get to know her and why she considers her field of medicine her calling in life.

Tell us a bit about your journey as a doctor. Where have you worked? What are some of your triumphs?

As the daughter of an OB/GYN, I have been exposed to medicine nearly all of my life. I graduated from Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine at Midwestern University in 2003 and completed a residency in family medicine. Halfway through my residency training, a mentor introduced me to the subspecialty of hospice and palliative medicine (HPM) because he thought I would be a good fit. After completing my HPM fellowship, I practiced in the hospice field, inpatient hospice, and palliative care in all settings: hospitals, outpatient clinics, and home-based palliative care.

Through the years, I became interested in leadership and administrative medicine. With further education, I received a Master of Public Health and an MBA in Medical Management. While still practicing HPM, I began studying to become a hospital physician advisor in 2018. Through the American Board of Quality Assurance and Utilization Review Physicians, I earned my certification in healthcare quality management with subspecialties of physician advisor, risk management and patient safety, and case management.

Three years ago, I was honored with the Certified Physician Executive (CPE) credential by the Certifying Commission in Medical Management. Currently, I serve as a palliative medicine consultant and Physician Advisor at MountainView Hospital.

What do you like most about practicing medicine?

What I like best about my job is really connecting with patients and families. When you think about it, my team and I are invited into a vulnerable space to improve the quality of life of our patients and caregivers. Although we have very difficult conversations about life-threatening or life-limiting illnesses, we help make the unbearable bearable. If we do our job well, patients suffer less or not at all. When you open your heart in this way, it no longer feels like a job. I finally understand the true meaning of a “calling.”

What is the hardest part of your job?

I often get the comment, “I do not know how you do it. Don’t you get depressed from working with terminally ill patients all the time?”

Although I really love my job, and I am grateful for being a part of the sacred space of these patients and families, it often challenges me with persistent thoughts of mortality. It is not easy to come away from death and dying if you are faced with serious illnesses throughout the day, almost every day. Along with staff and families, I allow myself to grieve. I am also learning to take better care of myself, so I can care for others more effectively and more meaningfully.

Why hospice and palliative care instead of another specialty?

HPM resonates well with me because of an experience I had when I was 16 years old. At the age of 86, my maternal grandmother suffered from a stroke in the face of advanced Alzheimer’s dementia. She was unable to speak, only mumble. She lived in the memory care section of a nursing home. She fell out of bed one night, but no one reported the fall nor assessed her.

Soon after, I came in for a visit, just in time to witness a horrifying scene. My grandmother was crying very hard and tried clinging to a staff member for support when he tried to get her to ambulate. “She is just being lazy,” he said. She could not speak to tell them how much pain she was in; my grandmother could only mumble, cry, and collapse.

Later, they found out that she had broken a hip. My grandmother became bed-bound and developed pneumonia. She was getting more lethargic each day. Then, one morning, she was suddenly awake and agitated. She was combative with the nurses and kept trying to remove her oxygen. “Terminal restlessness” was not a phrase used back then, but it now alerts us that the end may be near.

That night, my grandmother died alone in her room. She died without comfort and dignity during her last days of life. She needed someone who could be her voice, who could easily recognize non-verbal signs of discomfort, and who could show her a better way by optimizing comfort. She needed someone like me. I have now made it my life’s work to help relieve suffering, provide comfort, ensure dignity, and enhance quality of life.

Tell us a little about yourself outside of medicine?

I have an amazing family! My husband is a physical therapist who works in acute rehab, and we have two teenage daughters. I could not do this work without them. They know everything about the nature of my work, and they are always there to encourage and support me —they really get it.

We enjoy traveling to large amusement parks and different Caribbean islands as a family. Our favorite vacation spot is Providenciales in Turks and Caicos. In addition, my husband and I renew our wedding vows in the Caribbean every five years because we prefer not to wait for a 25th or 50th anniversary. For us, life is too precious not to celebrate it as often as possible.

As for hobbies and interests, I enjoy true crimes podcasts, singing or playing my ukulele, Latin ballroom dancing, and spending time with my friends and family.

What do you think makes a hero?

I define a hero as someone who is compassionate, courageous, and extraordinary. A hero strongly and positively impacts the lives of others without personal gain. Acts of heroism can inspire many others to act heroically, which is the magic of heroism.

Who is your hero?

My “everyday hero” is my husband, Joe. Throughout 16 years of marriage, he has never wavered in his understanding and support of my work. He does not complain about my long work hours, and he is always ready to listen to me after a hard day’s work —even if his day was much harder. I usually come home from work to a home-cooked meal and a big hug. He is there to do the dishes and laundry so I can work on paperwork and projects. He is there to catch my laptop (as it slides off my lap) when I fall asleep charting.

Joe is a wonderful husband AND an amazing father! He gives rides to school, helps with homework, attends sporting events while maintaining a whole household and a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. We adore him so much! He balances it all —his career, family life, and athletics. He is MY unsung hero.

Do you have any advice for people who want to pursue hospice and palliative medicine?

You need to really love this line of work to get through the difficult aspects of HPM. It is okay to be heartbroken for patients and families affected by serious illnesses and to grieve lost lives. Empathy keeps us humble and authentic. You can still be strong for your patients and families yet provide compassion, safety, and advocacy for those experiencing or affected by a life-threatening or life-limiting illness.

Thank you, Dr. Christine Estrada, for all you do for your patients, their families, and our community. Congratulations on being our January 2022 Unsung Hero!