When people ask how I decided to become a physician assistant (PA) I always tell the same story.
Upon entering Hamilton I had a clear plan -- major in biology then go on to medical school. With that goal in mind, I loaded up on science and math classes freshman year. Second semester I ended up with a C in calculus and organic chemistry (and more importantly couldn’t envision taking another semester of either). Like most Hamilton students, I was not accustomed to Cs and this deeply shook my plans for medical school. Hamilton’s pre-med advisor spent hours and hours with me and gave me the courage to think beyond medical school and take some time away from rigorous courses that didn’t interest me. At the same time, we discussed other careers in medicine and she introduced the idea of physician assistants which was a novel concept to me. During this process, a quick look at the Hamilton alumni directory showed only two PAs and I knew that most students interested in medicine went on to medical school.
I spent the summer working as an anesthesia technologist. During this experience, I was able to observe how a surgical team and the entire operating room staff worked with three PAs. One morning, everyone was in the operating room (anesthesia, nursing staff, patient), but they couldn’t start the procedure without the attending surgeon. A few nurses joked that the PA should start saying, “Come on Bill, go ahead, you are going to do the work anyway.” It was at that moment, I realized everyone trusted the skills and knowledge of the PA. I was in awe. My decision was clinched.
Graduate school was a wildly different experience than Hamilton. The focus of the first year of year PA school is learning a large amount of information in a short period of time. This is largely driven by memorization which was never the focus at Hamilton. While this time was stressful and exhausting, I was fully prepared for graduate school due to my Hamilton education.
Since becoming a PA, I have spent the majority of clinical time working as a hospitalist. Currently, I work at Brigham and Women’s. Some days are so busy I barely have time to breathe and other days are quieter, less so since the pandemic hit. My favorite aspect of my job is speaking with patients and their families. For me, it’s really important to break down medical terminology into something that is digestible for a patient. I believe if a patient doesn’t understand what’s wrong with their body and how it needs to be treated, they will not be successful. I recall once sitting with a patient who was diabetic and realized during the course of the conversation, the patient had no idea why he was taking insulin. No one had ever taken the time to sit down and example the basic disease process and physiology to the patient. It's no wonder he wasn’t compliant, we as a medical system had given him important information. These conversations are more important than any lab test or high tech scan.
When I reflect on my initial desire to go to medical school, I didn’t really want to be a physician. What I wanted was a career using science to help people. Being a physician assistant does exactly that, but more importantly, provides a wonderful work-life balance. In 2015, I decided to become a single mother and adopted my son. My career as a PA made this possible as I know I can financially support my family. When I am away from the hospital, I like having no responsibilities. This gives me the freedom to be fully present with my son which I value more than anything, even my career.
Now, Hamilton’s alumni directory boasts a significant number of PAs and hopefully more each year.