From Power School to PA School
September 18, 2017
Health sciences alumnus Vincent Russell `15 is a planner who doesn’t shy away from a challenge when it comes to taking care of his family. It’s what motivated him to join the U.S. Navy Nuclear Power School right out of high school. It’s also what motivated him to quit his civilian job and attend Drexel University as a full-time student.
Nuclear Power School isn’t easy to get into, nor was it something Russell really liked. He chose it because he wanted to go to college and the nuclear field would give him the most money toward his education. It’s an academically demanding program, notably one of the toughest in the U.S. military. Students spend upwards of 50 hours a week on their studies of engineering fundamentals, nuclear physics, chemistry, health physics and more. He may not have known this at the time, but this fast paced, exacting curriculum was the best preparation for CNHP’s health sciences program and eventually physician assistant school.
He remained in the Navy until 2009 before moving into commercial nuclear power at PSEG in southern New Jersey. “I stayed in a little bit longer than I had planned to initially because one, I was doing pretty well, and two, I had a family to take care of,” Russell offered. He was really good at what he did, but he didn’t enjoy it. “It really didn't seem to make a difference whether I was in the military or in commercial, so I talked to my wife, and with my veteran's benefits, we both agreed I could pursue a career in medicine,” he added. He applied to Drexel with the ultimate goal of being a physician assistant. It took nearly 18 months to get everything in place. Remember, he’s a planner. They sold their house to downsize and moved closer to Philadelphia and when he was accepted at CNHP, he quit his job and went to school full-time. CNHP’s advisors were very helpful in figuring out what would transfer from the undergraduate degree in human resources management he got at The New School while still in the Navy. “I was able to basically take a full load for seven quarters and received a Bachelor of Science in Health Science while I was getting all my prerequisite courses done for PA school,” Russell said. “And we had a baby. My daughter was born December of the second quarter that I was at Drexel,” he beamed.
Russell was under the gun to finish his degree. There are constraints with the GI Bill, so in order to finish, he didn’t do any co-ops. “I barely finished it in time. I actually had ten days overlap between my last quarter at Drexel and my first term at PA school,” he remembered. Despite how quickly his time went at CNHP, he got the most of every single minute. Russell admits that he’s always been good at the sciences, but he said where he saw the biggest growth was in his enthusiasm for research. Required for health sciences, he took a third part of the research practicum and was able to work directly with Janell Mensinger, PhD who does her research work with obesity among other things. “I’d taken one of her classes before. Another student and I got to do an analysis of some of her past research and were able to present it at one of the Renfrew conferences,” he said. “I saw the ins and outs of research, statistical analyses and how the whole process works. Then to be able to explain it to people who are interested in this research was a really good experience for me,” Russell added. Even for someone as educated as Russell, he confessed that some of his courses, like genetics, were difficult but really good. Between that, the research and the pace of the quarter system, he found himself well-prepared for what would be expected of him in PA school.
Russell was delighted to see so much of the work he did at Drexel pay off at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM) where he completed his physician assistant studies. He had to finish a meta-data analysis at Drexel which ended up being very close to his thesis at PCOM. “Every step of the way, I felt like I had already done my master’s paper,” he stated. At Drexel, Michael Kirifides, PhD taught Russell’s physiology course, and remarkably ended up teaching Russell the graduate-level version at PCOM. The parallels he makes between Drexel and PCOM are testament to the foundational education he received in the health sciences department.
What led Russell to want to be a physician assistant in the first place? After that initial conversation with his wife about changing careers, while they were setting themselves up to be able to live on one salary, he started volunteering in the emergency department (ED) at Christiana Hospital. He thought about going to medical school at the outset, however, working in the ED side-by-side doctors and PAs gave him ample opportunity to talk with them. “The more I talked to them, the more I considered where I was in my life (at this point he was in his 30s). In talking again with my family, it just made a lot more sense and it was a better fit to be a physician assistant,” Russell said. He knew he would get to interact with and diagnose patients which he feels are all the good parts of being a doctor. One thing he knew he wasn’t interested in was the business side of medicine. “Every physician assistant I spoke to really, really love their jobs. They loved what they did and I can honestly say that was not the case with some of the physicians I talked to.” Where Russell found himself at that time, it just didn’t feel right for him to worry about business when he’d rather help people.
Russell has recently accepted a job at Christiana Hospital specifically into the Doctors for Emergency Services. This free-standing emergency department that treats thousands of patients each year seems to be the best place for him. He was a somewhat hyperactive kid and got bored easily. As an adult, his desire to constantly be doing something is a perfect match for emergency medicine. The only thing he doesn’t like about it is that he doesn’t get to follow patients to the end. “While I do get to dig through my base of knowledge in the ED, I’m either discharging a patient because we took care of them and they will get better or you decide to admit them and get to interface with other departments. But I might never see a patient I see in the ED again,” Russell articulated. “I don’t get to follow a patient through follow-up care. Whereas in family practice or internal medicine, I’d get to track a patient’s progress and see how they’re doing.”
When asked if there is a stigma in the emergency department that a PA or nurse practitioner aren’t as qualified as doctors, Russell has a very quick and passionate answer. “It’s a fair question. I say that the accreditation and schooling that we go through as physician assistant is every bit, if not more, rigorous as medical school. We have essentially the first three years of med school condensed into a two-year program,” he replied. “And while it’s not med school, whatever you need to learn if you specialize or go into general practice medicine, you’re going to learn underneath a trained and licensed physician,” he added. Addressing the question about education, a PA has a master’s degree and is board certified (every bit as hard and rigorous as med boards), they just don’t do residencies. “But if you are comparing apples to oranges, when you get out of PA school and go into practice, you’re a first-year resident.” The American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) offers a lot of information about PAs and what they do. That’s a good thing since PAs and NPs seem to be filling in roles that a shortage doctors have left open. People, in fact, have been looking specifically for PAs and NPs for primary care. “You feel like you get a better experience because the person in front of you is not worried about the business aspect. They’re not worried about the 15 minutes they have to spend with you as much as the problem they’re coming in to see you for,” said Russell. He is not saying that doctors aren’t concerned about their patients. They are, but he thinks that they just have a lot more on their minds. “When I find a person who has chosen to see a PA, it’s generally for that reason. They feel like the experience they got was more personal and that the care they received was as good as or better than what they were receiving from the doctor they saw before.”
Where does this former youth lacrosse and football coach see himself in five years? He’ll still be working out a busy schedule with his wife, a neonatal intensive care nurse who has a master’s degree in nursing leadership and education and caring for their three-year-old daughter and thirteen-year-old son. He also hopes to have built his knowledge base up so that he can work in the higher acuity end of the ED. “I see myself being some of the trauma coverage during the week and probably accepting leadership roles,” Russell commented. He likes the idea of being in the thick of it, but because of his experience teaching both in the Navy and in the private sector, he doesn’t see being an adjunct professor as a stretch. As far as other areas of medicine that interest him, general surgery is one because of the variety, however, trauma surgery and working in an ICU are a possibility. No matter what he chooses, it will add to this naval nuclear specialist turned physician assistant and his family’s adventures.
Things I like or would recommend:
Book: Complications by Atul Gawande
He put his first year of residency in a book. It’s an easy read and is well-written.
Podcast: Physician Assistant Exam Review, EM Basic: Your Boot Camp Guide to Emergency Medicine and US Lacrosse
TV Show or Movie: Game of Thrones, Different Day and Super Troopers
By Roberta Sheronas Perry