Leah Lapp, a junior at Eastern Mennonite University, shadows Dr. John Wenger '85 during her pre-professional health sciences practicum. The required course places students in settings that match their career interests. (Photos by Andrew Strack)

‘Do I really want to be a doctor?’ EMU’s semester-long practicum may help you decide

Amber Shank says she’s always had a clinical interest in how the body functions — and more specifically, in how and why it stops working.

Her interest led her to investigate careers that primarily work with the dead.

Amber Shank plans to become a pathologist’s assistant. She has already been accepted to Sentara RMH’s School of Histotechnology, an interim step before she will apply to medical school.

Now a junior clinical laboratory medicine major at Eastern Mennonite University, Shank plans to become a pathologist’s assistant.

The education of a pathologist is a long and difficult process, with stringent academic requirements and a competitive post-graduate path. Not to mention the unusual activities the work entails – examining and dissecting dead bodies. So a student would want to be sure this was indeed for her.

This spring, Shank spent 30 hours in a practicum experience, shadowing five pathologists and one pathology assistant at Augusta Health in Fishersville, Va.

After witnessing an autopsy, being around corpses and aiding in organ dissection, Shank says the experience confirmed her desire to continue along this career path and helped her understand more clearly the professional and emotional demands of the job.

Shadowing experience can help save time and money

That’s the goal of the practicum, a one-semester course required for all pre-professional health sciences majors, says Professor Kristopher Schmidt.

“EMU has offered this course for years, and our alumni who go on to be successful practitioners in the medical fields often tell us that it was a pivotal experience in their development, as the first taste of what it might feel like to work in the profession,” Schmidt said. “Our students gain insights into what it means to work with colleagues and with patients.”

Dr. Julie Plumbley, chair of the Augusta Health Pathology Department, says that hosting students such as Shank for shadowing opportunities provides a more accurate and realistic perspective of what may become their future profession.

“One of the great aspects of shadowing is its myth-busting ability,” she said. “People, quite understandably, often form their ideas of a profession they think they’d like to pursue from television and movies. Of course, these dramatic renderings rarely reflect the reality of a particular type of work. Shadowing can correct false impressions and prevent mistakes that can be costly in terms of time and money. Plus you may learn about a related profession you weren’t aware of previously.”

EMU student R.J. Ocampo shadows Dr. Kurtis Sauder ’89 at Valley Pediatric Group in Verona, Virginia.

In the practicum course, students keep a journal and meet to discuss situations and issues they encounter.

Junior Leah Lapp spent her practicum with family physician and EMU alumnus Dr. John Wenger at Sentara RMH. “I don’t have concrete goals yet, which is why I wanted this experience. I’m currently deciding between medical school and graduate school, and this experience has given me a deeper glimpse and appreciation for what it would really be like to be a doctor.”

If she does decide to apply, an EMU education has been helpful to past applicants. Over the past 15 years, 80 percent of those who completed EMU’s pre-medical program and applied to medical school were accepted. Over the past 10 years, students who completed EMU’s pre-professional health sciences program enjoyed a 100 percent acceptance rate to physical therapy schools and a 92 percent acceptance rate to physician’s assistant programs. EMU also has articulation agreements with two universities.

After shadowing, clear goals and a path forward

Being sure of what she wants to do has helped Shank make plans for her future. She has already been accepted into Sentara Rockingham Medical Hospital’s School of Histotechnology, a one-year program that she’ll begin in January 2019 after graduation from EMU.

Amber Shank shadowed Dr. Julie Plumbley, chair of Augusta Health Pathology Department, and several other pathologists and pathologist’s assistants – an experience which helped her determine her next steps.

“Histotechnicians work directly alongside pathology assistants, so this will be a good way to get my foot in the door while learning as much as I can before graduate school,” she said.

While earning a salary, Shank says she will also be gaining valuable work experience that may help her application to medical school rise to the top. There are only 12 graduate medical schools that offer a pathology assistant program in the United States – she hopes to attend Eastern Virginia Medical School  – so competition is fierce.

Shank says her practicum experience allowed her to practice skills important to the workplace, like learning how to observe and take notes. She’s grateful to the professionals who made her practicum experience so worthwhile. After learning of her specific interests, the pathology assistant showed her some video of an autopsy from her medical school days. And she’s waiting for an invitation to assist at an autopsy, which would include weighing the organs and dictating notes.

This would be “a dream come true,” she said.

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  1. Longtime EMU supporter Harry Graber, MD, FACC, noted in an email to the news editor that he has published a book, “The Making of a Physician-This Was My Calling,” available through Amazon. Dr. Graber has presented at high schools in Ohio and Indiana as well as Cederville University of Ohio. His son Dr. Rodney Graber ’87 is a cardiologist.

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