Countdown to Commencement: Sonja Boulware dedicated to underserved

The day after her graduation from the UF College of Medicine, Sonja Boulware is planning to start a new life on the other side of the U.S.

She is getting married May 15 in Gainesville at UF’s Baughman Meditation Center, then will head with her new husband Patrick Kelleher, to the Seattle area for a residency in family and rural medicine at Tacoma Family Medicine, which was her top choice.

It’s been a hard long-distance courtship for the past few years – for months Kelleher, a nuclear engineer in the U.S. Navy, was stationed overseas and barely reachable – but they are looking forward to finally being together. Boulware considered joining the military also, but figured then the couple would have even less control over being in the same place.

UF COM fourth-year medical student Sonja Boulware. Photo by Jesse S. Jones

“I want to be where he is,” Boulware said. “(And) that’s actually a really great place to train for family medicine.”

Moving is nothing new to Boulware, who briefly lived in Tampa and frequently relocated with her parents, who were both in the U.S. Air Force. But one thing remained constant in her family – a commitment to helping others in the community who were less fortunate. She remembers being involved as a family in community food drives, preparing Thanksgiving meals and stuffing Christmas stockings for needy families. Between undergraduate and medical school, she also spent a year teaching special education mathematics at a local rural high school.

“Service to my community and country has been ingrained in me as a child,” she said.

Boulware said she always felt she was really blessed in life – with a loving family, health care and enough money to live comfortably – and much was expected of her to give back to those less fortunate.

UF and Gainesville have also had a big presence in her life. Her parents are Gator fans and she had it stuck in her mind early on that she wanted to go to UF. Her two siblings, who both majored in finance, also attended UF. She met her fiancée, also a UF alum, during her undergraduate studies.

“We’re a Gator family,” Boulware said.

Her parents retired from the military in 2002 to Gainesville and both teach at local public schools, where they mentor teens and encourage them to go onto college by helping them apply for financial aid and visit schools.

“I think when my grandpa died, they reevaluated their lives and decided to give back to the the community,” she said. “I think they are great parents to have – I’m so proud of them.”

As an undergraduate at UF, Boulware volunteered at ACORN, a clinic in Alachua County providing low-cost medical and dental services. At first, she thought she wanted to be a dentist, but later decided medicine was a better fit because she liked the connections she made with people and hearing their stories.

“I realized there was a great need,” she said. “And primary care was the best way to provide access and be the greatest resource to the greatest amount of people in need.”

Then while in medical school, she volunteered at the Equal Access Clinic, UF’s student-run free clinic for the underserved, and won the Equal Access Service Award for her work expanding services and hours there. She knew she had a passion for family medicine and caring for the underserved.

“(It was) one of the things that kept me sane through the first and second years of medical school,” she said. “And it reminded me why I wanted to go into medicine.”

Still the decision to pursue a career in family medicine was a tough one. Most medical students graduate with a significant amount of loans to repay and family medicine typically pays much less than other specialties. But she and Kelleher talked about her decision and decided she should go for it.

“He just said ‘I know you. I know what your strengths are and what will make you happy,’ ” Boulware recalled.

Boulware loves family medicine because it allows for patient education and empowerment, but admits it can takes a lot emotionally from you also.

But she said, “When you see the next patient, you still have to be recharged.”

One of her role models is David Feller, M.D., an associate professor in the department of community health and family medicine. A 1989 graduate of UF’s COM, he has served for 17 years as faculty adviser for the Equal Access Clinic.

“That’s the kind of doctor I want to be—people can call him, trust him,” Boulware said. “He’s helped me greatly.”