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Alumni Spotlight: Holly Thomas

November 6, 2020

Where were you born?holly headshot

I was born in a town called Leechburg. It is about 40 minutes north of Pittsburgh city, and you've probably never heard of it because it's so small. Our entire school K through 12 was in one building. I think my graduating class was about 48 people.

Why did you choose the PA profession?

My very small school did not offer a lot of diversity in terms of exposure to different careers, so when I started college, I actually didn’t know about the PA profession. I started as an English Education major because I love to read and discuss ideas, but I quickly realized that wasn’t what I envisioned myself doing. I also was very cognizant of my own health pretty early on. I was very into healthy eating and balance, things like that. So, I met with my academic advisor who introduced me to the idea of medicine, but I knew I didn't want to go into nursing, and he suggested becoming a physician assistant. I did some reading about it, and when I learned that it was founded by Eugene Stead, and he had recruited the corpsman to help him practice medicine, that was so appealing to me because there are a lot of former Marines in my family. That just felt very humbling and familiar. Then, I went to shadow a few different PAs, and after seeing how they function and what they do day to day, I knew that this was right for me. So, I just went straight through from undergrad to PA school and that was that.

Why did you choose Drexel for your PA program?

I chose Drexel because, first and foremost, I filtered the schools down by their PANCE pass rates because I knew I needed a school that was going to prepare me for boards. Drexel's reputation, having been one of the first programs and being attached to the Hahnemann Hospital, was so appealing. When I interviewed, I met with Pat Auth and Annie Madden, and their personalities are infectious, so I instantly bonded with them. Between realizing that Pat was the author of a PANCE review book and just laughing and having a good time with them, I knew I would thrive in that environment.

Where do you currently practice?

I currently practice at UPMC Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh. Before this, I practiced for three years in Virginia in adult transplant infectious diseases. I had originally wanted to work in pediatric infectious diseases, but there were no jobs when I applied. So when I came back to this area and saw UPMC had just started a fellowship program, I thought - This is perfect. I can do the fellowship and join the division. I was actually their first ever advanced practice provider. Being the first PA there was an interesting experience. It was kind of cool to get to pave my own way. I've been there now for one year and nine months. In that time, I've completed the fellowship, and I work in a clinic that we launched in Wexford, PA where I function autonomously. I also am the lead for a transplant and immunocompromised clinic that we just started as well. And I just got nominated for UPMC’s Advanced Practice Provider of the year! I'm so excited to share that.

Describe a day in your clinical practice.

I work in an academic institution, so there are a lot of additional things that I do besides just my direct clinical care. I focus heavily on Lyme disease because it's an epidemic in western Pennsylvania. The Wexford clinic was initially supposed to be dedicated to Lyme, but then we started getting a lot of other referrals there. So I see everything from Lyme disease, MRSA, skin infections, any kind of recurrent strep throat or unexplained fevers, things like that. Monday afternoons I’m in the transplant and immunocompromised care clinic, so there I do pre-transplant evaluations. We follow immune suppressed patients for all types of infections, commonly viral like Cytomegalovirus and Epstein Barr virus and then also post-operative infections, anything in that realm.

The other parts of my job that aren't related to the clinic are sign outs on Mondays, we have a Fellow’s Teaching conference on Tuesdays, and I'm also very involved in infection prevention meetings so we work closely with that department. On Fridays, we have this awesome noon conference where we present the tough cases from the week and get the hive mind opinion for recommendations and things like that. I also precept PA students. So that's pretty much what I do in a week, I would say, because each day is pretty different.

What is an item on your bucket list?

On my bucket list is really traveling because I've seen Italy and Germany, but I really want to get back to Europe a bit more. I just recently watched a documentary about the Netherlands, and now I'm obsessed with the Netherlands, so that is the next place that I really want to visit.

Also, I have yet to grow a successful garden where I can actually have crops. Within my division everybody kind of does this crop swap. I have a little bit of FOMO, so I'm really going try next summer to be a part of this and grow some cucumbers or something. So that's on my bucket list too.

What advice would you give a student who is just starting the program?

For a student just starting the program, I would acknowledge that the program is intense. However, it prepares you very well. So just know that the work that you put into this is going to pay its dividends in the long term. I think that the most important thing that I took away is that your attitude is really going to determine your success in the program. Focus on your accomplishments and try to have fun. I know that's kind of cliché, but there’s always going to be work ahead of you. That can bog you down. So if you focus on that, you can make yourself crazy.

The other thing I would say is that finding people who you can mesh with and not only just talk about the program, but study with is really, really important. I don't think that I could have gotten through the program as successfully if I did it without my group of girls. We really worked together through it and made some lifelong friendships out of it, too.

What advice would you give a student who is about to graduate?

I would first say congratulations, this career is awesome. You made a good choice. And I would recommend finding a specialty that you really resonate with because then, at the end of the day, it won't feel so much like work. In addition to that, a job with a culture that supports you and is willing to educate and mentor you is worth its weight in gold. I think that when you find a position that allows you to function at the top of your license, you really are in the position to add the most value to your patients and make the biggest impact in your community. And when you're loving what you do, that's pretty much the best PA position you can ask for.

What do you do to relax and take care of yourself?

I kind of focus my entire day around it. I really prioritize health and wellness because I think that you can't pour from an empty cup. So regardless of the day, whether I have to be at work at 8 a.m. or wouldn’t have to start until 9, I always get up extra early around like 5:30 or 6 a.m. and make sure that I get at least 10 minutes to one hour of movement, whether I'm just stretching and foam rolling or banging out some kind of intense workout. I actually find that I have more energy in the day when I prioritize this as opposed to if I hit snooze and sleep the extra hour. Don't get me wrong, I do that too, but for the most part, I try to keep my day pretty structured. Also, I'm a big fan of Epsom salt baths for magnesium after a really stressful week, and just laughing and hanging out with friends.

Do you have a personal philosophy or mission statement?

I have a personal philosophy and it's pretty nerdy, but I'm okay with that. It is that the micro is the macro. Even within our bodies, microorganisms outnumber human cells 10 to one. We really are made up of all these little, microscopic creatures and it's important to know that your small decisions are really what impact your ability to make big moves. So although my schedule is kind of regimented and a little bit strenuous, I think that taking care of those small parts of every day is what allows you to thrive.

What are you happiest doing when you’re not working?

When I’m not working, I am happiest spending time outdoors doing pretty simple things. I wish I had something more exciting. My boyfriend and I go to this old, abandoned golf course down the road that is now a really long, beautiful area where people hike. I'm obsessed with my dog, Layla, so we love to take her there off leash so she can run around. We love to do that in our spare time.

My boyfriend's family has a house down in North Carolina next to something called the Albemarle Sound, and it is a secluded place - like there's no Wi Fi, there's no internet. So when we go down there, we are really just relaxing without any distractions. That’s one of my favorite things to do.

What are some causes that you care about?

I am really passionate about the idea of One Health, that we are a global community and that our practices matter. There is a place in Pittsburgh called Phipps Conservatory, and it's one of my favorite places. It's a giant greenhouse, and it's manufactured to pretty much be self-sustainable, like they recycle 80% of their waste that comes from within the facility. They host this thing called One Health Symposium, where they discuss hot topics like air quality, water pollution and all kinds of things like that. My mission, besides infectious diseases, would be the idea of One Health and trying to take care of the planet that we have.