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Becoming a PA

The truth about PA school

Di Simone, Kathleen MS, PA-C

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Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants: January 2018 - Volume 31 - Issue 1 - p 1
doi: 10.1097/01.JAA.0000527699.06536.ea
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Never in my life did I think I could take 19 classes in one semester. But in PA school, I did. (OK, they were modules—but classes nonetheless.)

It took me until my late 20s to attempt a medical education. I switched between science and the arts when I was younger, always thinking I didn't have the endurance to complete a science degree. PA school takes a massive amount of endurance. It takes ALL the endurance you can muster ... and then more.

When you start the program, you hear about how hard it will be, that it is 4 years of medical school reworked into (for my specific school) just under 3 years. You hear about sacrifice, missing weddings, birthdays, friends, and family. You hear about how you are entering an academic boot camp, a labyrinth of all-nighters and incessant exams. PA school, so they said, is a marathon that will push your brain beyond its limits. (And they were right.)

But that isn't what I want to tell you about here. What I want to tell you about is everything you learn—through your actions or the actions of others—outside of medicine.

You learn how to interact with classmates and faculty under extreme pressure. You learn to forgive other people for how they interact under pressure. And if you're lucky, you learn that others can forgive you, too. You learn humility, how to accept when you're wrong, how to own up to your shortcomings, and how to overcome them.

You learn about weakness and strength, and about how the two are not necessarily a measure of character but just different states of mind. Sometimes, strength actually looks like weakness. And for those times when you judge a book by its cover: weakness can look like strength.

In retrospect (ah, retrospect), sometimes you learn that you could have done more, worked harder, or given it one more try. And as disappointing as that realization can be ... it will one day help you to save someone's life.

You learn that you can persevere for longer than you thought you could. And you can do this through frustration, sickness, letdowns, and uncertainty.

You learn that confidence is a spectrum, not a set point. Some show it sooner or easier than others. But for most, confidence takes time and experience. Wherever you fall on this spectrum, your place in it will change over time. You control this, all with your own decisions.

You also learn that there will always be someone who knows more answers than you, who gets higher grades than you, and who is calmer, more graceful, or more giving. You learn that with all your hardships, the classmate next to you is also dealing with a death in the family, a breakup, or some hellish life event just like yours.

You learn that large groups of people always branch off into smaller groups because they can't help it. You learn to avoid gossip, and not let people's judgments distract you. You learn that complaining can bring people down—and other times, it makes them feel less alone. You learn that doing things the hard way isn't always the best way, but that doing things honorably is.

You learn the value of telling the truth, being efficient, and believing that you can work out a problem. You learn on rotations that these practices make outstanding PAs.

PA school teaches you so many things. You leave having to know the intricate workings and downfalls of every single body system. You leave prepared to care for and save human lives, from diagnosis to surgery. You leave with knowledge, much more than when you started. But perhaps most importantly, you leave with wisdom.

As you study and take your exams, I want you to remember this. Wisdom is not a number, a pass or a fail. It is not the highest grade in the class, or how broad or in depth is your memory of each medical specialty. Wisdom is not academic, not intelligence, not measured as IQ. Wisdom is the result of navigating PA school itself, with all its great triumphs and tremendous sadness, the fear of failure and not being able to make the path to graduation. Most of all, this wisdom comes from your emotional intelligence, your understanding of people. This understanding is the pillar of who you are; it is the pillar of a PA.

That's the truth about PA school. If you're like me, you won't get all of these things mastered before graduation. I'm still learning and relearning many of them. I'd tell you that when you take on PA school, be sure you can handle it. But I wasn't always sure I could handle it. I was only sure of one thing: that I wanted to.

Somehow, that was enough.

Copyright © 2018 American Academy of Physician Assistants