Sarah Lopez receives a hug from her mother, Esthela
Graduating medical students share their Match Day news with excited family and friends. Sarah Lopez receives a hug from her mother, Esthela, after learning she will be joining the USC emergency medicine residency program. Daniel A. Anderson / University Communications

Professional sports have their annual drafts; medical education has Match Day. That’s when thousands of medical school graduates across the country learn where they will begin their careers as doctors – an event no less dramatic than the NFL draft.

At UC Irvine, anxious students – who may have applied for up to 10 residency programs months earlier – stride one at a time to a podium before hundreds of family members and friends. There they unseal and read aloud a letter revealing the university hospital and residency training position to which they have been “matched.”

Residency programs, usually three to seven years long, give newly minted doctors specialized training in a particular discipline, such as surgery or pediatrics.

This year’s Match Day, March 19, brought both cheers and tears for 76 UCI medical students. Most won’t be going very far – 50 were matched with programs in California, 11 of them earning spots with UC Irvine Healthcare.

For Carl Smith, Gabriel Rivera, Anna Altshuler and Sarah Lopez – and the School of Medicine – Match Day was a milestone. They are the first graduates of UCI’s innovative Program in Medical Education for the Latino Community. PRIME-LC is a dual-degree program addressing the unique healthcare needs of California’s largest underserved population.

Smith will move with his wife and children to the University of New Mexico for an emergency-medicine residency. Rivera will take his family to George Washington University in Washington, D.C., for an internal-medicine residency. And Altshuler will begin an obstetrics and gynecology residency at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“The sad part is that we’re all going our own separate ways,” says Lopez, who was matched with the emergency-medicine program at USC. “But we’re like family. We’ll always have each other to turn to.”

Match Day also offered Lopez, a Tustin resident who earned bachelor’s and graduate degrees at UCI, an opportunity to share the accomplishment with her mother, father, brother and four sisters, all of whom took the day off from work or school. “My family isn’t saying that I’m becoming a doctor,” she says. “It’s: ‘We’re becoming a doctor.'”

UCI’s graduating medical students have commencement exercises in May and will head off to their first jobs as doctors in July. Lopez, for one, can’t wait.

“I’m ready to get my first paycheck,” she says.