First Year PA Student Blog: Alice Curchin

Monday, June 10, 2019

Alice Curchin, PA-S
Alice Curchin, PA-S

Prior to PA school, I worked in a high school teaching health literacy. I loved working with my students to help them reach their academic and personal dreams, but I often found my knowledge base coming up short when they needed me to provide information on more complex medical issues. I did not have the tools to help them process their history of trauma, their new diabetes diagnosis, or how to treat their three-month old infant’s rash. Working with these students, I shared in their confusion and felt paralyzed by our combined lack of medical knowledge.

My desire to come to PA school stemmed from this helplessness. I knew a deeper understanding of medicine was required to be of true help to them. However, the PA application cycle left me feeling like an impostor. My medical experience was outside the normal standard of clinical exposure; I do not have a science degree and had slowly, one-by-one, taken all of my prerequisites at night at the local community college. Instead of pushing me aside, Duke celebrated these differences, and despite my medical greenness they gave me the ticket to begin my journey toward becoming a health care provider.

This year has been trying in so many ways, and has stretched my brain sometimes to a point that feels like it might snap. But the 89 brilliant people that I get to share my days with makes all the difference. My fellow Duke PA-S classmates love to get a soccer game going on any free evening, share a taste of their home during multicultural potlucks, spend their precious free hours explaining how to read an EKG, or want to discuss how to support women's’ rights around the country. During lows — doing poorly on a test, challenges at home, difficult political climates — focusing the necessary 12 to 18 hours a day can feel impossible. When these things happened to me, I was quickly swept into the warm arms of the Duke PA student community. With this community at my side, the instructors, and time with patients, the pieces of clinical care have slowly begun to come together.

A lecturer this past month told us to never forget what it feels like to be overwhelmed and confused by medicine. They reminded us to hold on to what it feels like to depend on others for answers in your time of greatest need and to remember how difficult it was to understand the medical language used around us. Chances are, our patients will be feeling the same way in the face of a new diagnosis or complex care regimen. This advice seemed like a foreign concept at the time. Many days I feel like I am drowning in new information, clinging precariously onto the edge of understanding. However, as I write this from Denver — at the annual American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) conference — I am beginning to see the growth my classmates and I have made this year.

'Finally tracking'

While sitting in lectures on arterial blood gases, gender dysphoria, and response to trauma, I found myself finally tracking with these challenging concepts. I listened to my classmates around me at challenge bowl (PA nerd Olympics for those who are not familiar) excitedly whisper answers to complex medical questions. Things that once felt so foreign have started infiltrating our daily conversation and thought processes, perpetually annoying our non-medical partners and friends.

Having been given the privilege of being the community outreach co-chair for my class, I have had the wonderful opportunity to help connect our class with the Durham community that so strongly supports our medical education. Despite our demanding, and sometimes tortuous, weeks of learning and testing (or as one professor calls it, “Celebrating our learning”), my classmates are always eager to sign up for a chance to put in work for our greater community. Through volunteering with groups like Special Olympics and Refugee Health Initiative, I found myself looking through a new lens at health challenges that once made me feel helpless and dependent on a health system that was hard to access. Volunteering with my classmates has given me the opportunity to hear their unique perspectives and started conversations about how we can make those barriers just a little bit lower for our future patients.

In just under a year, we have continued to build the basic scaffolding of our medical understanding and are ready to enter the clinical year. The long hours and sleepless nights all seem worth it when I think about how many more questions I will be able to answer and fears I will be able to ease with this gift of knowledge. I am so thankful for the people who have helped me get here and feel wildly lucky each day to have the opportunity to forge the path I want to follow in life. While I am nervous to re-enter the clinical setting in my new role, I know I have the best community to support me.

Alice Curchin 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 Family Medicine and Community Health, or Duke University.