Follow by Email

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Workin' Woman-- to Workin' Student

Interview. For PA School.

Over 1000 applicants were in the running for the GW PA class of 1978-80. 50 would be selected. Not a gambling person, I was still resolute. I just *knew* this was my year to be accepted into Physician Assistant School at DC's George Washington University.

I had worked night shift in the blood bank before my 10 am interview. I was a bit sleep deprived and had bought a navy blue power suit (a big '70s thing) for the meetings. A coworker brought a scarf and tied it in a frou-frou bow around my neck. Definitely not my style, but for some reason, it was reassuring for this jeans and t-shirt gal.

I recall walking into the conference room of what was then the PA office, to a big oval table with several serious faces scrutinizing me. Hours later, I was shifted office to office, asked more questions and floating in time. "Why did I want to be a PA?" ("Umm. I want to help people.") "What did I do to prepare for the rigorous coursework?" ("I took all the prerequisite classes, knew all about PAs-- and I had SAVED almost $20,000 for the first year's tuition!") An all-time odd interview questions was asked by the clinical director: "Do you date?" she inquired. Unsure how to answer,  I slowly articulated "Yeeeeeeeeeees". I still ponder the reasoning of her peculiar query even these 30+ years later.

Weeks past and I received the acceptance letter. YEE Haw! I was on the way to being a PA.

My tuition was $6606.00 per semester, a sum I for which I would write a check 3 times a year for next the 25 months and declined thinking about meaning of the number. I enrolled in a pre-PA medical terminology course that was offered. There, I reviewed -itis vs -algia and -oma. I was grateful I took that first step towards learning the new language that was to become central to my life and existence.

That first 26 hour semester was THE worst. I had never attended college full time. Mine was a part time while working experience since I moved from my family home a week after I turned 18, almost eight years previously. Books were expensive and the fees mounted-- labs, those nebulous "student center fees" and whatnot. I envied those 4  classmates on military scholarship. Everything was paid for them: tuition, books, housing, food.

Certainly not starving, I ate lots of ramen noodles, mac and cheese and peanut butter, although not usually together.I worked weekends as a lab tech and got a second evening job bartending on "The Spirit", a tour boat that had private parties on the Potomac River. I would eat frugally all week long and come home Saturday evenings with wonderful meals. One time, I received Lobster and a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé (a wonderful, expensive chardonnay) bequeathed by the caterer to me. That particular time, the very French chef told me in a thick accent, "Take this home and enjoy it with your lover". Since I had no boyfriend, my lab friend Tracy shared the meal with gusto. But we DID have fun!

Sometimes there were tips when I tended bar.  My coworker bartender scoffed at a party of bowling teams one evening-- not our usual high-dollar customers. "How low-brow!", he exclaimed. At the conclusion of their cruise, their organizer handed both of us a $100. bill. That was a miracle from heaven in those lean times.

So I paid bills and went back to studying in the laundry room of my roach-infested building on GW campus, or sometimes the library at the medical school, where classmate Mike had a permanent cubbie. Rent controlled, my apartment was 2 blocked from the Foggy Bottom Metro and the Medical School at Ross Hall. $315/month was worth the aggravation of the nosy landlady, repairs done eventually and those creepy cockroaches I could hear gnawing in the dark, all.night.long.

German Cockroach-- my constant companion

Classroom, studying, working and an occasional celebratory toga party and were my life for that first year. I still played and wrote  music, often with an assembled group of friends. One song I wrote to the tune of "Ballad of Jed Clampett" was titled "Ballad of the PA Student". ♫ The lyrics follow:

Let me tell ya'll a story of my PA class
Exams every week/we're afraid we wouldn't pass
Then the profs started posting all the grades
That terror that we had-- all began to fade.  Sort of.

At first it seemed it was us agin' them
Them bones to memorize, those pathways of Biochem
It could scramble up the braincells if we took time to reflect
There was too much yet to learn and no time to object
'Cept between classes. and on weekends. And lunch breaks.
Doc Cassidy informed us we should learn every nerve
I couldn't help but wonder if we're graded on the curve
Kept wishing Dr. Tidball would show us all some heart
Cause looking over notes, I could not figure where to start. 
Lemme see. Again. Ooo-ee.

Well two years from now I suppose we'll graduate
Running from Ross Hall we won't even hesitate
As for weeks and months, we have spent in haulin' ass
It's all in a  DAY for 1980's PA Class.

(note: the professor names are real! whether they are still there is another question.)

PA and Nurse Practitioner students took basic science courses with each other, but then joined the medical students for the specialty modules, such as nephrology and cardiology. We also took physical diagnosis class together and despite our reluctance, practiced on each other-- and later, our family and friends. I called it "playing doctor". And I was getting GOOD at it!

During one history practice session, I was pretending I had mononucleosis. As medical student kept asking me a barrage of questions. I vigorously nodded and shook my head in reply, while she studied her notes intensely. The instructor stifled at laugh when the med student finally looked at me and stated, "Well, I am certainly glad nothing is wrong with you!"

One pivotal memory in the huge lecture hall was an orthopaedic session, where the professor interspersed photos of naked buxom women with his teaching slides. I slunk back into my seat as the guys snickered and guffawed. One woman stood and announced, "We women would like to be entertained by pictures of naked men, too!" The professor stammered a response to the effect of "I didn't mean anything by it", although I truly wish I'd had the courage to stand with that brave 2nd year medical student.

I owned no car. I rode a BMW motorcycle, because of the relative ease of parking in downtown DC and low fuel costs. One of the Nurse Practitioner students and her husband also rode Beemers. We became fast friends and often studied together. Lucy Anne and I kept in touch long after PA/NP school until her death from breast cancer many years later.


One snowy day, I crossed 23rd Street from class to home, with a 40 lb backpack slung over my shoulder A man ran the traffic light and just missed hitting me. I thumped my fist on the back of his car in protest. He slammed on his brakes, got out and this 6 foot tall male pushed all 5'1"of me into a snow bank at the corner. Another man witnessed this, strode over and pushed HIM down into the same icy mush as I scrambled to regain my footing and scurried home.

"But she HIT my car", he whined, as the other guy stood over him menacingly, fist coiled.
Here I was learning to save lives and someone almost took mine.

Next: The Clinical Year or Learning First Hand about the House of God.

1 comment:

  1. I'm totally fascinated with your history, Charlene! Keep 'em coming!!