My Story

My name is Stephen, I am the PA behind Page the PA. I graduated from Emory University’s PA program in December of 2018 and currently reside in Atlanta, Georgia where I am training as a critical care PA in the intensive care unit (ICU). This is an excerpt from my story to becoming a PA.

A short by Tom DeSando on my journey to PA school

Prior to PA school, I worked as a starving artist and frequented the stage performing in shows and crooning my favorite tunes. As I grew closer to graduating from undergrad, I felt my passion for helping others would be better suited in a more practical field such as healthcare. After being certified as an emergency medical technician (EMT), I began working on the ambulance. I quickly grew to enjoy this new niche and decided to pursue it further, putting my performing arts life on an indefinite hiatus.

After two years of busting my ass for the ambulance service at a soul-crushing $9.00/hour with mandatory overtime, I took my talent and drive to the emergency department where I thrived as a trauma technician (ER tech). In the ER was where I really fell for medicine and decided that taking care of people on the worst day of their lives in a manner that demands scientific knowledge and a lick of empathy was what I wanted to dedicate the next chunk of my life doing.

I returned to school in search of a new career, completing an informal post-baccalaureate over the course of five years. I returned to undergrad to study math, chemistry, physics, and other premedical sciences at Front Range Community College and the University of Colorado – Boulder while working several jobs to stay afloat.

Being in the hospital environment provided me the chance to see the inner-workings of the healthcare system and demonstrated how medicine really is a team sport – demanding excellence and contribution from everyone from the admissions staff, to the nurses and technicians, to the environmental service staff who assure a clean and safe environment for patients.

I became interested in all facets of healthcare and considered pursuing nursing or becoming a paramedic or respiratory therapist (RT), but ultimately set my aims on attending school to study osteopathic or allopathic medicine – not paying much attention to the PA profession. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to become a PA, but it was more so my ignorance – not really understanding what a PA was and how they function in the healthcare system that initially kept me from pursuing the PA route. In the emergency department, I worked alongside PAs cleaning wounds and lacerations, splinting fractured bones, and assisting in procedures like joint reductions and complex laceration repairs, but I still didn’t fully grasp the full scope of what they (PAs) could do or how they were truly utilized in healthcare.

So, I studied my face off, took the MCAT (medical college admission test), volunteered, I was involved in the university pre-med club, I shadowed providers, and I completed all of the necessary courses to be able to apply to medical school.

All I had to do was get letters of recommendation (LORs) and apply.

This was the plan, but after a grueling five years of working night shift and going to school feeling like I was competing with younger pre-meds, I had a bit of a come to Jesus moment while I was in Guatemala participating in a 6-month Spanish language and cultural immersion program.

Did I really want to go back to school for a minimum of 7 years (4 years of medical school + minimum 3 years of residency)? What if I wasn’t accepted on the first go around and had to re-take the MCAT and apply again another year, or two, or three? What if I wanted to pursue a surgical subspecialty that would have required longer residencies, fellowships, and more?

Did I want to continue to sacrifice many of the things I had already been sacrificing over the course of the previous five years like friendships, hobbies, relationships, my health, and sanity for almost another decade?

These were a few of the questions I wrestled with for some time.

Over the course of my post-bac. the idea of attending med school became an enticing fantasy and self-proclaimed challenge that I had put myself up to. Why? Because like many people, I enjoy a good challenge. I constantly feel the need to be working towards something, destroying goals, and crushing accomplishments – it’s in my DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). I didn’t love the idea of nursing school or becoming an RT enough to pursue them, so I says to myself, “why not just do the hardest thing possible and become a doctor?”

This attitude towards my future made the decision to not apply to med school a tough one. Looking back on it all, I guess I was out to prove something; I don’t know what or to who I was proving it, but my time in Guatemala let me clear my head space a bit and consider what was important in my life and what I wanted my future to look like.

Could I have sucked it up and gone to medical school? Absolutely. There’s nothing that could have stopped me from doing this, but I eventually decided I didn’t want that life for myself. I have a million and one hobbies and activities that I enjoy doing that I would have had to continue to sacrifice being able to do in order to become a physician. If I were ten years younger, maybe this would have been a more feasible option for me.  The truth is that our time is limited; tomorrow isn’t promised to us.

After I did extensive research into the PA profession and got a clearer idea of what all they could do and in what areas of medicine they could work, pursuing a career as a PA was a no-brainer – plain and simple. Once I realized that I could accomplish all of the things I wanted to in medicine as a PA, the thought of med school left my brain and has yet to return.

I would be able to see my own patients and fully work them up for their problems.
I could order and interpret diagnostics tests like labs and imaging.
I could call my own consults and work with other PAs and physicians.
I’d be able to do procedures such as suturing, intubation, chest tubes, central lines, arterial lines, and manage sick and critically ill patients.

Perhaps most importantly, I could directly make a huge difference in the lives of people who needed it and join a growing career field that provides incredible value and service not just to the community, but to healthcare as a whole. I didn’t need to become a physician to do this.

At this point, the clouds parted and the trajectory of my career became clear. It was serendipitous timing when I made the decision to go PA because the application cycle was just starting. After painstakingly sifting through all the PA programs admissions sites and their pre-requisite requirements, I ended up applying to the eleven programs that would allow me to apply with the pre-requisite courses from my pre-med track that I had.

For those who haven’t yet applied to PA school and familiarly for those who have, after you submit your CASPA application all you can do is think about PA school and anxiously wait to hear back from schools about potential interviews. You check your e-mail compulsively, 10, 15, 30 times a day, two minutes apart, first thing when you wake up, the last thing you do before you go to sleep, just hoping to hear back. You’ve already worked so hard to even be able to apply and now your big chance to try and get in is finally here.

I attempted to thwart off the PA school application anxiety by doing the things I enjoyed like spending time with friends, trail running, and being outdoors. I received my first invite for an interview just weeks after submitting my CASPA (centralized application service for PAs) application after I finishing a hike with Tom, a buddy from the hospital. “This is must be a mistake,” I said when I first read the e-mail inviting me to Atlanta, Georgia for an in-person interview at the Emory University PA program. I was in shock. The e-mail read (edited for brevity):

“Dear Stephen,

The Admissions Committee of the Physician Assistant Program of the Emory University School of Medicine has reviewed your completed application and would like you to be present for a personal interview on 2015-10-02.

We are looking forward to meeting you and would like for your visit with us to be a pleasant experience. Please be relaxed and allow us to get to know each other.

Due to the number of applicants awaiting interviews and the difficulty in scheduling, please respond to this email with the form below as soon as possible.

Kaye Johnson

Associate Director of Admissions
Emory University PA Program”                   

I knew applying to PA school in the manner that I did was a bit of a Hail Mary. This helped me temper my expectations of being accepted in my first cycle of applying. From reading about PA school, I learned how incredibly competitive admission was, with some schools admitting just 3-5% of people who applied. My inner monologue read something like “if I get in, sweet, if not it will have been a great learning opportunity and preparation for the next cycle – when I can really submit a stellar application.”

The competition at the interview was fierce and I left thinking that I did my best, but really wasn’t sure how I stacked up to some of the others I interviewed with. One dude had something like 10 or 15 years experience as a firefighter/medic and flight paramedic while another girl touted her seemingly endless list of accolades and research publications – easily outdoing my few years of experience, average GPA, crappy GRE score and volunteer activities. I would soon learn that while the latter items are important, they aren’t ultimately what get you into school (at least they shouldn’t be).

The interview day itself was fantastic and the program did an excellent job of making us feel comfortable and welcomed. I went into that day with no expectations, just hoping for a great learning experience to prep me for PA program interviews the next year. I left that day desperately hoping they’d accept me into their program.

While I sat in that interview eagerly listening to the admission’s director speak about the PA profession, I knew and felt it in my soul that my decision to pursue becoming a PA was the right one. All of the hard work and struggle finally made sense. The agony of suffering through the premed weed-out courses at CU-Boulder like general chemistry and physics after already going through undergrad once, the months spent bouncing back and forth between busy overnight shifts in the ER and the classroom peppered with just fragments of Ambien-induced sleep, the loneliness I felt from being isolated in the library for days studying physics equations and reading MCAT passages, the sadness I felt living like a hermit – sacrificing my health and wellbeing, the pain of depression from losing friendships and relationships to pursue a career dedicated to caring for the well-being of others, it all clicked. I was destined to become a PA, come hell or high water.

After an amazing interview experience, I flew back to Colorado and went back to the school//night shift-in-the-ER grind. I interviewed at Emory on Friday, October 2nd, 2015 at 0730 eastern time with one of their first interview groups. They told us in the interview that they would call us within 48 hours to let us know if we were:
A. Accepted
B. Waitlisted
C. Not accepted or waitlisted, but encouraged to try again next year
My thoughts, “cool, won’t be sleeping for the next 48 hours,” just kidding.

After working from 1900-0700 the night before, I laid my head down on my cozy bed in Lafayette, Colorado at around 0800 on Monday, October 5th to get some shut-eye. Luckily, I didn’t have class on Mondays. I woke up randomly around 1500 and glanced at my phone to see what time it was only to find this voicemail from Allan Platt, the PA admissions director at Emory:

I matriculated Emory University’s 29-month Physician Assistant program in August of 2016 where I would serve as the 2018 Class President. Our cohort of 53 students graduated from the program on Thursday, December 13th, 2018 at the Glenn Memorial Church in Atlanta, Georgia.