First Year Student Blog: Grace Johnson

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Grace Johnson, PA-S
Grace Johnson, PA-S

Art was my earliest and greatest love. It defined and carried me through childhood, adolescence, and into early adulthood. As a young person I imagined a future where my fingers were trained to use paintbrushes, not scalpels. In high school I enrolled in all the art classes my disapproving guidance counselor would allow. I had solo art exhibitions, and I received commissions. Art seemed like the only future to me; I identified as an artist, and not much else.

Grace JohnsonIt came as no surprise to me, then, when I struggled in math and science in high school and had to be transferred into more remedial courses. It eventually came time to take the SAT and I spent the entire 180 minutes hunched over that piece of paper filling in bubbles with answers I did not know, fighting the urge to instead draw a picture over my Scantron. I believed my score was proof that I was not capable of pursuing a college degree. I accepted that score. After all, I was an artist, not an academic.

While at work in an art gallery during my senior year of high school, I started a friendly conversation with a customer named Denise. She was a nurse and spoke of her work with such exquisite enthusiasm and passion. I was enthralled by her patient stories and couldn’t stop asking questions. She wondered if I had ever considered a career in medicine, but I replied that wasn’t in the cards. Denise seemed to think otherwise.

It seems absurd that such a simple conversation could have such drastic implications, but Denise had shattered me. All the walls I had built around myself, all of the excuses I had made, years of telling myself I was “just” an artist and that I was not “book smart” … it all crumbled. I suppose it just takes the right person at the right time, because when I got home from work that evening after meeting Denise, I borrowed my dad’s computer and logged onto my state university’s website. I was going to college.

On my first day of college, I sat in a massive lecture hall scribbling furiously — notes that might as well have been hieroglyphs because I didn’t understand a thing I was writing down. Mixing reagents in chemistry lab was nothing like mixing paints. Fundamental biological concepts presented as cursory “review” were completely foreign to me. I was in over my head, but I was too proud to accept defeat.

My junior year, I started working in a busy ER and found myself troubled by patients with poorly controlled chronic disease. Often the disease course was preventable, and I found myself wondering how these patient’s outcomes would have differed had they been established with, and closely followed by, a strong primary care provider. I found myself imagining a future where I could be part of a solution to this problem, where I could help increase access to care for patients in vulnerable and underserved populations. I wanted to help empower patients to pursue their health as a resource for everyday living and to be more than just patients. I wanted to empower them to become partners in their care. This became my dream.

Along with the unwavering support of my family and friends, my dream carried me through a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences, through an intense PA school application cycle, and ultimately to the fateful day I received my acceptance letter from Duke University’s Physician Assistant Program — the day I realized that it was no longer just a dream, it was my reality.

Prior to my PA school application process, I searched through Duke’s PA student blogs trying to find a story similar to my own. I wanted to hear that it was possible for someone like myself to make it, because the road from artist to PA felt impossible. I found no such blog, and so I am writing this to remind others that it is possible. The PA profession needs providers from diverse backgrounds. If being a PA is your dream, go after it. Do the hard work. Ask questions, and reach out. We are in this together.

I truly hope the day comes where you receive an acceptance letter and your dream becomes your reality. Until then, shine on.

Grace Johnson is a first-year student with the Duke Physician Assistant Program. Email with questions.
Editor’s note: Duke Physician Assistant Program students blog twice a month. Blogs represent the opinion of the author, not the Duke Physician Assistant Program, the Department of Community and Family Medicine or Duke University.