All New - 4th EditionThe Ultimate Guide to Getting Into Physician Assistant School
My fingertips brushed the ruffled edge of the pink handmade card that was pinned on the wall at Edwards Lifesciences. It was my first day of work, and I was still taking in my surroundings. Although there was quite a buzz of busy employees rushing through the hallway, rattling off complex scientific terminology, my focus was not broken. Amid the hundreds of cards I read walking down the hall, one in particular grabbed my attention; it was written by a child who could not have been more than five years old. In squiggly, childish handwriting were the simple words, “Thank you for saving my life, Dr. Laks.”
It was like looking fifteen years back in time, recalling the earliest memory of a story my parents have often told me. My feeding habits as a newborn were unlike those of normal babies. I was consuming milk in scant cubic centimeters instead of ounces. As weeks went by, my weight dropped rapidly. I was taken to many doctors who scoffed at my case, dismissing it as a minor thyroid or digestive disorder. Desperately, my parents rushed me to UCLA Medical Center, where a young female intern knelt down beside me, put her ear to my heart, and noted an irregular beat. Tests later confirmed that I had a congenital heart defect, and I would need surgery soon if I were to survive. At a mere five weeks old, I had emergency open-heart surgery, performed by Dr. Hillel Laks. He patched a dime-sized hole, enormous compared to my little heart. Unwittingly, by way of his expertise and care, Dr. Laks had set my life on a new course.
My parents vividly described the events after the surgery when I was in the ICU, recovering, with multiple tubes coursing through my body. My life hung in the balance, and I live with this story as a constant reminder of life’s fragility, acknowledging that I was graciously given a second chance. I believe that growing up with the understanding of my experience has positively shaped my life. These early, deeply buried memories have empowered my commitment and have compelled me to work in medicine so that I can help improve the quality of life for the people I have a chance to serve.
My passion to aid others and provide them with professional yet personal care deepened after a recent poignant experience working in a neurological clinic. It was an ordinary afternoon. I remember waiting for the next patient in a clinic room when an elderly man shuffled through the door, leaning on a cane in his left hand. He entered with a calm but sullen disposition, looked up, and greeted me with a nod. I helped him to a nearby chair and waited for him to begin his story. He had been diagnosed with dementia and was living with a caretaker. His wife had passed away, as had many of his friends. Depressed from having suffered through such isolation, he had lost his vitality and vigor. As he spoke, he stared blankly into the distance, with lifeless marbles for eyes that yearned for a connection. I pulled my chair closer and gently patted his hand. He turned and greeted me with a warm, crooked smile. The smile alone revealed that simply by way of a heartfelt touch, I, as a caregiver, could momentarily free him from his loneliness and ease his suffering. This chance to connect with and provide relief to those in need compels me to meet the medical and emotional needs of others.
Much as my life did at five weeks old, the life of this man hangs tenuously on a precipice, wrought with uncertainty about the future. I learned from talking to this man that treatments may not always be available, but as a physician assistant, I can still offer my patients a gentle touch and the genuine compassion they desire. He has taught me that life, even at its end, warrants humanity.
I pass by the handmade card at Edwards Lifesciences daily, and each time, I am reminded of my life’s story. It is a memory that I will always carry with me, for it has spurred within me the desire to give back and to help others. I am endeared to this cause, and it is my personal mission of gratitude to give hope and to provide comfort. It is my way of saying thank you.
At five, I wanted to be a doctor. At forty-nine, my motivation and desire to become a physician assistant is not only historical in nature but deeply rooted. My career, family, personal journey, and spirituality have entwined and culminated into a genuine calling demanding a leap of faith and considerable personal sacrifice.
Desiring to be a physician has always been a part of me. In adolescence, I knew I was designed for the helping professions. My passion was to go to medical school, but I was too immature to make that commitment. Alternatively, I earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and my hopeful and optimistic step into health care began. As I asserted my duties in psychological services, my quieted longing to become a doctor lingered.
My first work in mental health involved social work, case management, and counseling services with different populations inside a medically based model of services. During those years, my knowledge grew rapidly. I was privileged to work beside outstanding professionals, including doctors and nurses. Successfully managing a family and a full-time career, I earned a master’s degree in psychology. I continued to develop clinically, but also I evolved personally to develop an even deeper desire to help others. My experiences broadened to include working in a private psychiatric hospital, among many other opportunities. My keen interest in health and medicine only grew, coinciding with my confidence, expertise, and personal satisfaction. Even in those years, I felt I was being drawn toward something.
The love of my family, my financial responsibilities, and a sudden loss of employment diverted me from mental health and led me into skilled nursing. I was offered the social-services director position in a large, fast-paced skilled-nursing facility. This was not only a managerial position, but it immersed me clinically into the function of its interdisciplinary care team over my fourteen-year tenure. It was partly a dream come true. Not only did I find myself in a position of considerable responsibility, with supervisory and leadership roles, but I was living and learning in the vast expanse of medicine.
Those rigorous days proved to be a continuous training ground. My typical workday walked me through an unpredictable variety of teachable moments. I thrived in it. From the moment I stepped upon “the floor,” I was integrally involved with communicating, planning, and treating patients with an array of professionals, including physicians; physician assistants; nurse practitioners; psychiatrists; psychologists; nurses; certified nursing assistants; dietitians; physical, occupational and speech therapists; even clergy.
Furthermore, hospital engagement was a part of it all. I was routinely discerning medical records, history, and physicals; medication administration records; treatment administration records; and lab work while incorporating this information into my daily responsibilities for our patients.
While working and communicating with patients (and their families), I served real people struggling with real disease, acute injury, and disorienting trauma within this subacute setting.
I was happy! I was fully involved in healing and intimately helping vulnerable people of all walks of life. I was a team member engaged in the practice of medicine. This rekindled the realization that I still had a deep desire to become a medical professional engaged in a practice beyond what I was currently doing. I also came to see and believe that I was capable of such service. I decided that my time had passed to become a physician, but my dream of practicing and serving as a physician assistant was born. I knew that if I were given the chance, I would succeed.
Injury brought me new perspective about the role of the PA. I perforated my esophagus with food, and emergency surgery ensued. I experienced two separate thoracotomies, two weeks thrust into intensive care, one month’s infirmity, and the most competent medical care any person could ever receive. Unimaginable pain was managed, and I fully recovered. I decided if there were a will and a way, I would attempt to gain entry into a program. Such would enable me to become a physician assistant and perhaps participate in the level of care and healing that I had received. I found the will.
Before this decision, family members and colleagues encouraged me to apply, offering forceful votes of confidence. Through my prayer life, it has become abundantly clear that I am called to apply and hopefully serve as a physician assistant. With the support of my wife and family, I vacated my career to pursue prerequisite courses needed to apply and ultimately pursue this goal. The solid achievements in every class over that year have further reinforced my desire and have given me confidence that I can successfully complete a physician assistant program.
Moving forward, I hope for the open doors to realize an abiding dream and obey my calling to serve.
“A PA helped save my daughter’s life,” exclaimed my coworker Christy. She detailed how the persistence and advocacy of a PA at the ER had been instrumental in diagnosing her daughter with Kawasaki syndrome. As she spoke, I was struck—yet again—by the dedication of this PA, not unlike that of the many other PAs I had contacted in prior months. Though I had been exploring the profession for some time already, it was this defining moment that truly cemented my desire to become a PA.
I grew up outside Bombay, India, and my late grandfather had been our town’s first doctor; I grew up hearing stories of his love for people and medicine. My grandmother—who suffered a stroke and diabetes—let me “help” her take insulin shots and medication. Though I was young, these experiences left a strong impression; it was during this time my love of service and health care was born.
Growing up in India was a wonderful experience. I learned to interact and live with people of diverse perspectives, cultures, languages, and religions. In March 1993, due to ongoing religious rifts, a string of bombs was set off in downtown Bombay. My father’s office building was a target; he was trapped for hours before being rescued. Though he suffered only minor injuries, my family was shaken to its core; we immigrated to Canada shortly thereafter.
In Canada, my father was unable to find a job and succumbed to depression and alcoholism. I started working at fifteen, to help support my mother and younger brother. Though far from ideal, this situation instilled in me excellent time-management skills and a determination to excel. I learned to balance paid work with strong academics and community service. This included volunteer positions at an animal shelter, a sexual- and domestic-violence hotline, a local hospital, an opera house, and with local environmental groups. Working at the crisis hotline and at the hospital, I realized my true desire was to serve people through health care—though I was still unsure of the route I would take.
When accepted to the University of Toronto, I made the difficult decision to continue living at home and supporting my family. Since my decision made me ineligible to receive financial aid, I took on a second job to fund my education. This was a crippling period in my life: emotionally, physically, financially, and academically. Despite a strong desire to excel, and an inherent love of learning, I simply did not have the time or the means to demonstrate my academic ability. Coping with my father’s disease—and his increasing verbal and physical outbursts—eroded our family finances and all sense of stability. A heavy work schedule, combined with the increased financial burden of education and a competitive academic environment, meant I could not perform at a level that reflected my true academic abilities. Though dropping out of school would have alleviated much stress, I persisted, determined to graduate in good standing, in my chosen field. Though it was the most challenging time of my life, it taught me maturity, adaptability, and most of all, perseverance. I graduated in good standing in 2006 and moved to Texas shortly after.
In 2007 I began work at Cogenics, as part of a team that provided molecular biology services to a wide range of clients. The technical and logistical challenges of the job were enjoyable, as was the opportunity to expand on knowledge acquired in university. In 2009, I moved to Biotics Research Corporation (BRC), a respected nutraceutical company that manufactured over one hundred unique dietary supplements. Working at BRC was a tremendous growing experience. As the only quality assurance (QA) coordinator, I supervised a team of eight QA associates, as well as acted as a liaison between the board of directors and company-wide QA activity. In this fast-paced environment, I learned crisis management, how to identify and solve unique problems, and most of all, how to effectively work in high-stress situations while maintaining my composure and the integrity of my role. The health-related aspects of this job strongly rekindled my desire to work in health care; I knew without doubt that a future profession based on a medical model of education was my goal.
Shortly after I began work at BRC in 2009, my husband was treated for an eye injury by a PA at our local ER. I was impressed with her depth of knowledge, calm demeanor, and the ease with which she worked alongside the doctor to treat my husband. She was happy to tell me about her journey into the PA profession; that very night began my quest into understanding the profession more fully. I joined the AAPA and contacted as many PAs as possible. In the many phone and e-mail conversations that ensued, two similarities stood out: all loved their chosen profession and the team-oriented nature of their jobs. Both of these were traits I strongly valued in any future profession. In shadowing five PAs, I was amazed at the range and complexity of specialties they practice in—from the ICU to cardiovascular surgery—and also at the unique relationship that exists between each PA and supervising physician. It was also during this time I met Christy and experienced the defining moment that led to this application.
I quit my job in June 2010 and returned to school full-time; I wanted to prove my academic capability and become a more competitive PA candidate. Since then I have completed forty-two hours in PA prerequisites with a 4.0 GPA. I also volunteer in the community as an adult English as a second language (ESL) teacher and at Houston Hospice and most recently at Omega House.
As an adult ESL teacher in an underserved community, I develop curricula and teach adults to speak and write English. All of my students are immigrants who—as I once did—cope with various levels of cultural isolation. Being able to empathize with their situation has helped me not only be a teacher, but a life coach and cheerleader of sorts. I am proud to say that with my help, many have dramatically improved their language skills; some have even gone on to find jobs or complete their GEDs—goals they never thought possible.
At Houston Hospice, I have the honor and privilege of interacting with patients in the final chapter of their lives. Learning to deal with death in medicine was a challenge. Here, I learned that being a good caregiver means more than administering treatments—it means offering empathy and comfort as well. It saddens me that PAs are still unable to practice in this area of medicine; if given the opportunity, I hope to one day be part of the growing PA movement that is trying this.
While at Houston Hospice, a lead nurse recommended I volunteer at Omega House, where she had previously been director of nursing. Omega House is a residential hospice for people in the late stages of HIV/AIDS; volunteers contribute almost 70 percent of patient care. Here, I have had the opportunity to serve patients in many ways: by socializing and interacting with them; cooking meals, changing clothes and diapers; and helping feed, bathe, and attend to personal hygiene, as well as helping nurses chart daily progress, remove catheters, and administer medication. Both hospice positions have given me a deep sense of fulfillment and deepened my longing to be able to serve and treat patients in a greater capacity.
I want to be a PA because I want to be part of a growing profession that is hands-on, practical, challenging, and constantly evolving. Working with supervising physicians means exciting opportunities to acquire new skills and knowledge and the ability to practice in more than one area of health care. With my strong love of learning, a genuine desire to serve patients, and the skills acquired through my life experiences, I feel that I am a strong candidate for the PA profession. If given the opportunity, I also hope to contribute to the PA community by being an advocate for the profession and by helping educate future generations of PAs.
The most powerful experience of my life was when my father was mistreated for Lyme disease, suffered a subdural hematoma, and underwent emergency brain surgery. We were told that his odds were long, but I thank God and the medical team for his full recovery. Above any other, this experience called me to action and motivated me to pursue a career as a physician assistant, where I hope to provide the kind of quality care that my dad received.
My interest in health care and helping others was brewing long before my father’s illness, however, and I was raised to work hard in pursuit of my passions. In middle school and high school, I volunteered at a hospital and nursing home, where I relished my interactions with patients as I provided basic care and observed the skilled physician assistants. Though I obviously lacked the technical skills to provide more direct patient care, I learned to build relationships with patients and work alongside medical staff. In college, I directly cared for patients as a personal-care attendant, and I was hooked; I wanted to utilize my skills for the greatest impact.
Given my passion for new experiences, after college I chose a challenging new path. Armed with only confidence, I took a two-year position as a middle-school teacher in a low-income school, where I taught teenagers about their bodies, encouraged budding scientists, and led my students and the science department to success. Surprisingly, it was through this experience that I discovered a new angle on my passion for medicine; witnessing the lack of health care available to these low-income families was my calling to affect change in the medical field. This two-year teaching commitment gave me a deep understanding of the obstacles of the underprivileged and taught me how to educate a reluctant audience while persevering against challenges.
My classroom work was largely external, but in an internal way, my passion for running has impacted my outlook and my attitude on personal health and preventative care. Through college track and running everything from 5ks to marathons, I’m fascinated by the human body. My pursuit of running and wellness has led me to work with friends and family on their personal fitness goals, which has fed my inquisitiveness about the body while improving my ability to educate others on preventative health and wellness. While internal motivation is critical, to gain more direct clinical experience I am now an emergency-room volunteer, where I observe staff making decisions under extreme stress. This exposure has only furthered my desire to pursue a career as a physician assistant.
My journey to pursuing my physician assistant degree has involved events and experiences that have given me tremendous appreciation for the role that PAs play in the health care continuum. I look forward to taking the next step in this journey to serve others.
“Don’t fear the competition, become the competition!”
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