Dr. Joe Ybarra – Emergency Care Revolutionist & Marathon Enthusiast

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By: Desiree Prieto

Photo: Ivan Xavier Ramirez

Dr. Joe Ybarra, emergency physician and owner of Emergence Urgent Care in Harlingen, Texas, started his practice in 2008, after realizing a particular type of demand. “I noticed from my own experience working in the emergency room that there wasn’t an urgent care facility in the community to provide services for the ‘in-between’ issues.” Formerly an ER doctor at Valley Baptist Hospital and the first medical director at Harlingen Medical Center, Dr. Ybarra wanted to find a solution for helping the sprained ankles, broken arms, and other, less life-threatening emergencies in the Harlingen and Rio Grande Valley area. His passion for health care goes hand-in-hand with his passion for leading a healthy lifestyle: he’s run 37 marathons in competitive times (75% age grade) and believes that the sport of running is a metaphor for a healthy life. “I believe, philosophically, that there are four elements to a person: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual,” he said. “If you don’t exercise each of those elements you become less than your potential. When you get stronger in all of these areas, you can persevere and do better in all aspects of your life.”

While he focuses on running, Dr. Ybarra encourages others to find their own favorite sport as the training enables a healthier lifestyle overall. Originally from East Los Angeles, Dr. Ybarra’s family moved to Houston when he was still a young man, where the peer pressure of a low-income neighborhood encouraged him to join a gang. However, once introduced to a local church organization, he started making better grades in school and participated in extracurricular sports. He eventually got an academic scholarship to Houston Baptist University and ran his first marathon while a freshman in college in 1977. In January 2010, at 52 years old, Dr. Ybarra ran the Houston marathon, running 26.2 miles in three hours and four minutes (that’s an average of a seven minute per mile pace!), and says that if he can do it, others can too. “Like in life,” he says, “you have to train. If you don’t, you end up not meeting your potential as a person. It takes skills, but you will build that over time.”

Training for a sport uses the same disciplinary skills as studying in academics. These skills in overachievement enabled Dr. Ybarra to triple major in biology, chemistry, psychology, and to attend Baylor College of Medical School where he finished early—in three years. He completed his residency at the University of Texas, Houston, in family practice and grandfathered his boards in his other specialties, including Emergency Medicine and Sports Medicine. He continues serving healthcare needs in the Rio Grande Valley both as a primary care physician and as a Medical Director of Brownsville Fire/EMS and Los Fresnos EMS.  Across the street from Valley Baptist, his office, Emergence Urgent Care is currently morphing into a free standing emergency room (FSER) that is not affiliated with any particular hospital. Since HB 1357, FSERs can now function under their own license.  As the first of its type in the valley, it is going to expand into a freestanding ER and do business as St. Michaels ER (www.stmichaelser.com) with board certified ER doctors, focusing on seeing patients expediently with high touch and high tech. While major traumas still need to go to the hospital- based ER, Dr Ybarra says that, “we’re going to focus on issues that could end up waiting long times and causing overcrowding in hospital based ERs.” Dr. Ybarra has been working on this project for the past several years with the help of his state representative ex-wife who co-authored HB 1357 which passed in the 81st legislative session.  “I’m very excited that we’ll be one of the first FSERs in Texas to get licensed.   We’ll go to Brownsville, McAllen, and Weslaco, where FSERs will help with the hospital based ER overcrowding.  Hopefully, these facilities will start popping up everywhere (like Houston) and it will feel like you have a ‘private emergency physician close to home.’”

In addition to his primary residency in family practice, Dr. Ybarra is certified in emergency medicine, sports medicine, forensic medicine, and tropical travel medicine (diseases of the tropics such as dengue and malaria are more common in South America and Africa, however, the Rio Grande Valley’s proximity to Central and South America make it a conducive place for diseases).  One can only guess, however, that Dr. Ybarra probably uses his certification in sports medicine just as frequently as the others. In his 30s he went through several years of injuries, including four knee surgeries. His orthopedist recommended switching to another sport, but he says that he continued to push through it. “I had to recover and that’s the hardest thing to tell a lifelong runner or any serious athlete — they can’t do a race or tournament. But one of the important lessons I try to teach athletes is that when your body breaks down it has to be given time to heal. That actually applies to the other aspect in life as well, physical, emotional, mental or spiritual.” Dr. Ybarra’s inspiring commitment to healthcare and healthy living is an asset to Harlingen, the Rio Grande Valley, and all who push their capacities to the limit. However, Dr. Ybarra says, “I feel I am no more special than anyone else, but I am blessed with a strong will and commitment and try to encourage and inspire others to meet their potential with determination, persistence and passion.”