Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Three years ago, my heart stopped.

This is my application essay to physician assistant studies school. 

Three years ago, my heart stopped.

My partner George lay before me. I’d held his hand while he seized and coded, and now a kind nurse held me. With each zap of the defibrillator, his body arched off the bed. When his heart finally beat, mine could too.

In the summer of second chances, I watched George get stronger and think about what he wanted to do to make life and death meaningful. Approaching life from the epilogue changed how we thought about our next chapters. For George, that meant living life outside of work; for me, work is a vocation, a way to make a difference.

As I came to know George’s medical team, I spent our visits marveling at, and envying, his PAs. I told Robert, a cardiology PA, that he had the most amazing job in the world. He agreed. Our conversations turned from, “I wish I’d had a chance to be a PA,” to “I want to be a PA.” To me, that meant being part of a team focused on a person, not just a collection of symptoms—looking at both the immediate, critical needs and long-term health.

When I finally said it out loud, George, his medical team, and my own doctors all agreed, enthusiastically, that not only could I do it, but I would be great.

I’m not a typical PA student. I don’t have straight A’s. I’m in my 40s. But I do have a rich background.

My first time through college, I had a notion to be a vet or study genetics, but I also had the mindset of a first-generation college student who didn’t know how to study or ask for help. I managed to get a master’s in English and look for ways to make the world a little better.

I taught college composition, then brought in millions of dollars in grants for teaching, research, and underserved communities. I served on boards and commissions that give voice to the underserved and marginalized. My quest for social justice got me to the Democratic National Convention as a national delegate. I kept teaching, and I kept taking classes: Spanish, winemaking, and American Sign Language.

Throughout all of that, I helped my friends and family with their health issues. I’ve sat at bedsides and researched aortic aneurysm, breast cancer, postpartum depression, neuroma, and prion disease. My crohn’s disease taught me how difficult it is, for patients and providers, to make sense of a mysterious collection of symptoms and navigate disease management when there is no cure.

Three years ago, my heart took me in a new direction.

Two years ago, I took a long-dreaded chemistry class and surprised myself with an A. An international development class took me to Nicaragua, where I worked on water quality with AMOS. Dr. Laura told us that when she arrived, eager to cure tropical diseases, she learned the most important thing a doctor could do was teach. Ending poverty started with safe water. In our mountain village, my closest friend was Jaclyn, 9, a tiny, bright, sweet little girl who did not go to school because she needed to watch her baby sister while her mother worked. I left a piece of my heart with her.

One year ago, I left my job to become a Certified Nursing Assistant and immerse myself in school.

I shadowed a PA in urgent care, listening to congested lungs, looking at rashes, watching elegant stitches repair gashes, learning about gout and sprains, antibiotics and drug interactions.

With each experience, I found new things to love about our precarious bodies. It’s a family project. George quizzes me on anatomy; the boys look over my shoulder while I research.

Nigel, 19, met me at the door the night Donna died. I’d help wash her body. Nigel had heard me talk about the feisty woman whose hand I’d held in her last days. Something profound happened to her, and by extension me, and he wanted to process how a person lives 85 years, then stops. He could not have done this three years earlier, with his dad. I had to. For the space of a heartbeat, I faced life without him--then faced life with new meaning.

I know I will be a good PA. I’ve seen life and death. I’ve seen crushing poverty. I’ve seen students light up when I help them understand something they’ve always hated or feared. I held my mother’s hand through breast cancer, pestered a dear friend to visit a doctor so she could walk again, reviewed clinical trials with my rheumatologist, and helped neighbors calm fevered babies. My grumpiest patients light up when we talk tomato gardens, puppies, and those things that show them they are valued and wise.

And even my worst days, when my patients are sad, violent or dying and I come home with a sore body and heavy heart–even those days are better than my last career because I can count the ways I made someone’s day better, even if it was their last.

With PA studies, I love the rigorous education, the flexibility to generalize or specialize, the opportunity to teach, and the ability to help underserved communities. I will model my work on the most caring, thoughtful, curious, and tenacious health care providers and teachers I’ve known.

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