PA School (and Everything Else)
I grew up in the world of competitive gymnastics, and for those who aren’t familiar with the sport, let’s just say it is intense. It requires strength, speed, flexibility, grace, courage, time, and more. Not only must a gymnast possess these qualities, but they must demonstrate the perfect blend of them. It is, pun intended, a balancing act.
PA school in the midst of a global pandemic has felt very reminiscent of my gymnastics days. I strive daily to balance academic demands, my marriage, friendships, and all aspects of my health. As an added challenge, I do so while spending most of each day in solitude. To be completely transparent, I fail daily at attaining the balance I seek, and that can make it difficult to wake up each morning and try again.
But this is PA school. This is the stage of life I worked years to get to. Not only is it PA school, but this is PA school at Wake Forest, the dream school. So I am hanging on for dear life and experimenting with new ways of defining and attaining balance.
I recently reduced my daily to-do list to three academic tasks and two personal tasks. It seems simple enough, but the reality is that the PA curriculum often includes more than three assignments, readings, or task each day. If I absolutely must do more, I try to weave learning into more enjoyable activities. This may be practicing physical exam maneuvers on my husband, turning anatomical drawings into mini art sessions, or studying on my quaint screened in porch while breathing in the fresh air.
The most challenging aspect of being in such a time-consuming program with the added bonus of physical restrictions, is balancing everything that is not school-related. While our heads have been stuck in the books and our eyes on the computer screen, the rest of the world has moved on. There are countless individuals around the country being wounded by racial injustices and millions around the world being negatively impacted by COVID-19. Many of my family members and friends have experienced major life changes, received significant news, or struggled with loss this year as well. It feels deeply unnatural and very discouraging to have to schedule time to participate in the world around me, yet it is something I and many of my classmates have had to do to make it through this program. To reach a better balance, I continue to explore ways to fulfill multiple needs at once without overdoing it.
My husband and I have always connected over food, so 1-2 nights per week we blast music and cook dinner together, catching up on the day as we eat. I fill long walks with long phone calls, worship music, or podcasts. I’m pretty sure I have turned housecleaning into a sport that is sure to count as daily exercise. These are all small things, but so impactful for my overall mental, physical, and spiritual health.
Many people have experienced pauses and full-on stops at the hands of COVID-19, but we as Wake PA students charge full speed ahead. That’s difficult to manage. Full disclosure, I have not once completed my daily to-do list since PA school started. Sometimes my dishes remain in the sink for days. And sometimes, even though we are told not to repeatedly, I show up to virtual lectures in pajamas. I’ll be the first to admit that I have not found the right balance, but it’s okay. This isn’t gymnastics and we don’t have to maintain perfect balance at all times. We just have to hang on, keep trying, and always get back up.
Lauren Autry, PA-S ‘22
When I received my acceptance to Wake PA, I could not have anticipated that I’d never shake my IBL teammates’ hands. I was excitedly focused on moving to the Innovation Quarter, buying school supplies, and generally daydreaming about collaborating with exceptionally intelligent students from around the country.
I was not thinking about my N95 mask size!
*Enter COVID-19 stage right*
Woof. That hurt. Although Wake Forest PA Program has provided a seamless transition to a hybrid program, and continually works to provide in-person opportunities, it is hard to ignore the loud thought that I am missing out on “normal” graduate school life. After talking with other students, we seem to be on the same page. Outside of our IBL small groups, we don’t know each other well. Quick, obligatory, “Hey, how are you?” niceties in the hallway leave much to be desired. I want to feel like a family, and so do my peers. Even after a long, difficult exam week, we cannot commiserate together over dinner at the local hangout or have a cookout. Of course, I know that graduate school is about my education. It is about the opportunity to grow, have unmatched clinical experiences and graduate with varied job offers and opportunities because I attended a top-10 school with a progressive and rigorous curriculum. I, like my colleagues, am proud of that. But we are hardwired for meaningful connection and COVID-19 has tapped the breaks on a huge component of what I had originally anticipated for this experience.
Thankfully, we have not been alone in our struggle. Faculty are continually adjusting to state and local guidelines, recreating a curriculum to ensure our success, and adapting their own lives to COVID-19. They have children who are now learning from home. Professional practices have changed to telehealth. And yet, our professors are exceptionally accessible and seemingly always brainstorming avenues to allow us in-person opportunity. The challenge is monumental; good thing our faculty is brilliant, diligent, and passionate. Despite zoom fatigue, mic malfunctions, and study room restrictions, my classmates and I have found ways to support and connect with each other. Various interest groups have connected students in small group fashion, volunteer opportunities in the DEAC and mobile clinics allow us to practice together and occasionally, we do get to socialize distantly, with masks, outdoors.
We will continue to create a new normalcy. We will continue to learn, thrive, volunteer, and care for our community. We will continue to collaborate with faculty and each other to graduate successfully in unparalleled times. COVID-19 has armored us with a resiliency I didn’t expect I’d need. Perhaps we will be uniquely prepared for our careers. Despite (or maybe because) of it all, I am hopeful and excited for our class’s future. Wear your mask, save lives.
Catherine Staplefoote Scholarship
In October of 2020, I was humbled to be awarded the inaugural Catherine E. Staplefoote Scholarship from OrthoCarolina of Winston-Salem. Staplefoote graduated from the Wake Forest PA program in 2007 and worked in pulmonology in Charlotte for two years before returning to Winston-Salem to work in orthopedics. She passed away in July of 2020, and her co-workers decided to honor her via an endowed scholarship in her name to the PA school. Though I never had the opportunity to meet Ms. Staplefoot, I understand that she was a leader in her field and showed unparalleled compassion in every aspect of her life. She was beloved by her patients, co-workers, and of course her two children and partner.
To me, as an up and coming PA, this scholarship represents a call to action to imitate her character traits. I was chosen by those that knew her best and by my faculty to embody what she stood for. I am humbled beyond words to be chosen for this award and hope to be worthy of the legacy that she leaves behind. In my eyes, that means becoming a leader that my fellow PAs, my healthcare team and my patients can unquestionably rely on. This means balancing my love of medicine and pursuit of knowledge with my love of humanity and kindness to others.
This honor shows me to always be humble and to seek to leave behind a legacy of patient care that those following in my footsteps can look up to and even surpass. I believe that Ms. Staplefoote has done this throughout her personal and professional life and I can only hope to accomplish a part of what she has in my lifetime. I am grateful to those that knew her best for carrying the torch of her life onwards and that I was chosen to be a part of carrying that torch as well. Thank you.
National Health Service Corps Scholarship
The National Health Service Corps Scholarship Program awards scholarships to students across various healthcare platforms who aspire to work in primary care in an underserved area of the U.S. The NHSC was created in the 1970s to address the national primary care provider shortage, and since then the alumni network of NHSC providers has grown to more than 50,000.
I am so honored to have been selected for this scholarship. Ever since I was in college volunteering at the local free medical clinic, I have felt drawn to serving communities in need. I also love the variety of primary care and that I will get to see my patients more frequently and be able to build long-term relationships with them. Working in primary care also gives me the ability to treat my patients in a more holistic way, rather than just treating their symptoms. Many Americans face barriers to health care every day, and I hope to make a difference by alleviating some of those barriers.
Having already accrued an immense amount of student loans from my undergraduate degree and Masters of Science in Management, the financial assistance provided by this scholarship is life-changing. That being said though, my heart was set on primary care either way. I cannot wait to begin my future career as a PA with the National Health Service Corps.
Scrubbing in with the Dean
Bailey Dunlap, PA-S (‘21) was on her vascular surgery rotation when she had the opportunity to scrub in with Dr. Julie Ann Freischlag, the dean of Wake Forest School of Medicine and the CEO of Wake Forest Baptist Health.
“It was an amazing experience that I will never forget," Dunlap said. "The Wake PA faculty does an incredible job of finding us rotations where we get to interact with innovative faculty who are willing to teach and allow ample hands-on experience.”
Dunlap is the second from the left in this photo.