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November 5, 2009

LIFE SUPPORT - Skills honed in athletics and VCOM's training and support provide opportunities for former Tech student-athletes to pursue dreams of careers in medicine

By: Jimmy Robertson

Brittany Cook made a name for herself as an outstanding ACC basketball player and now is attending VCOM, with her sights set on becoming a doctor.

Two arrived at their individual decisions after injuries in their respective sports led to visits to the Tech training room.

A couple of others simply grew up wanting to do this, with one being heavily influenced by two family members in the same profession. Another had only a passing interest in pursuing this route as a youngster, but later felt led to take advantage of the opportunity. Others had, well, other reasons.

The common denominator, though? All attended or are attending the Edward Via Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM) in Blacksburg while pursuing a career in the medical profession and all have a connection to Virginia Tech athletics.

At least 11 former Virginia Tech student-athletes and one former cheerleader have pursued or are currently pursuing the career of medicine through VCOM since the school opened in 2003. Amy Wetzel Doolan, a terrific women’s basketball player at Tech and Abraham Hardee – better known as Billy during his football playing days – became trendsetters when, in November of 2002, Wetzel became the first female and Hardee the first male to be accepted into the school.

“I don’t know if I would say that I’m a trendsetter,” Doolan said. “I was just going after a lifetime dream. I always wanted to do primary care and I wanted to serve a rural area because I’m from a small town in Pennsylvania. I was just fortunate that VCOM opened right after I graduated. It was meant to be.”

“I never thought of it that way,” Hardee said, echoing Doolan’s thoughts. “I just took advantage of an opportunity.”

A private medical school housed at Virginia Tech’s Corporate Research Center, VCOM came about because of the dream of the late Marion Bradley Via, who wished to see a medical school established in conjunction with Virginia Tech to produce physicians for southwest Virginia – which has critical shortages of physicians according to a health care study performed by Virginia Tech and the Harvey W. Peters Research Foundation. Via passed away, but her son, Edward Via, and John Rocovich, who serves as the family attorney, led the initiative to establish the college, and they, along with the Harvey W. Peters Research Foundation, decided that an osteopathic college was the best choice to meet the primary care and rural health needs of the region. Today, the college works in collaboration with Tech for research and student activities.

Osteopathic medicine focuses on the full scope of medicine and surgery, and focuses more on the patient than the disease. Those pursuing this field receive a D.O. [Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine] upon graduation as opposed to an M.D. [Doctor of Medicine], and they will be able to examine patients, diagnose illnesses, prescribe medications, perform surgeries, and use osteopathic manipulative medicine, a form of therapy that uses physical contact to improve the impaired or altered function of the organ system.

“You’re getting a whole body outlook,” said Ashleigh Keats, a former track and field athlete who graduates from VCOM in 2011. “I was planning on getting a M.D., but I decided to try this and I really like it. It takes everything into account. There’s such a variety. You can go from, like, surgery to chemotherapy to birthing. That’s what attracted me to this specialty.”

VCOM currently has approximately 600 students. Doolan and Hardee graduated among 139 students in the first class in 2007.

Judging from the reactions of those with connections to the Tech athletics department, many others will be following suit.

Making the decision

Some student-athletes spend four years, and others spend five, pursuing their academic endeavors and athletics dreams. Their undergraduate days possess little of that rare commodity known as free time. After all, a typical day for many consists of getting up early, going to work out, going to class for much of the day, perhaps attending another workout, heading off to practice (usually a couple of hours), and then going home or to the library to study or going to study hall.

This routine for four or five years leaves most burned out from school and sports once they graduate and the thought of continuing school leaves them exasperated. So to pursue a degree in medicine, one must be extremely motivated.

Interestingly, several of Tech’s former student-athletes credited the current sports medicine staff for sparking an interest, and specifically, Mike Goforth, the assistant AD for athletic training, and Dr. Gunnar Brolinson, the head team physician.

“I never knew those guys until I met them when I was having some back pain,” said Thomas Evans, a former swimmer. “Dr. Brolinson treated me and I felt better instantly. He told me he was a D.O. I enjoyed how he treated me. That left a lasting impression.

“I had always tossed around the idea [of becoming a doctor]. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do at the time, but Coach [Ned] Skinner urged me to go talk with them [the sports medicine staff]. I ended up shadowing them and watching them intrigued me. I was into it more than I thought I would be.”

“I came to Tech to be an engineer,” said Canaan Prater, a former wrestler. “But I got a few injuries and became familiar with the medical staff and it all came together. I saw how they were able to fix people and that really turned me on to it. My senior year, I worked with the orthopedic people and I knew then that’s what I wanted to do.”

For some, though, the decision was made much earlier. Keats, for example, grew up around medicine – her father is a physician and her sister is a chiropractor – so the transition seemed only fitting. Doolan and Spencer Harris, a former baseball player, grew up wanting to be doctors. Harris planned on attending a medical school somewhere once he graduated, and the opening of VCOM in 2003 provided that opportunity.

“My goal was always to be a physician,” Harris said. “Once I got here and talked with some of the physicians, I became more interested. Then once the school opened up, it just made sense.”

Brittany Cook, a former women’s basketball player, took advantage of that opportunity as well.

“I wouldn’t say it was a dream of mine growing up as a child, but I always had an interest,” she said. “It’s close to home for me [Narrows, Va.], and they [VCOM] are trying to provide doctors in small, rural areas like where I’m from. I wanted to make an impact and this was an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up.”

Transitioning from undergrad to VCOM

Prater, the former wrestler, gave probably the best description to the course workload during his first two years at VCOM.

“I heard people say this before, but it’s like trying to take a sip from a fire hydrant,” he said. “And that’s true.”

The first two years at VCOM are mostly classroom-based, with students studying lots of case overviews. They take classes such as Cell Biology and Physiology, Microbiology, Immunology, Genetics, Embryology, Anatomy, Physiology, Pharmacology and Pathology. Students also get approximately 20 one-day clinical experiences at both ambulatory and hospital sites. These experiences give them an early taste of the profession.

“There’s just so much thrown at you,” Prater said. “The sheer volume is the biggest transition. It’s not that you can’t comprehend the material. It’s just that there is so much of it.”

“There’s a tremendous amount of information given and you’re responsible for knowing all of it,” Harris agreed. “It’s continuous. It’s just so much more than you’re used to.”

The class schedule itself runs all day long (from 8-5), with a lunch break in the middle. Instructors cover a lot of material – and they do so quickly.

“In a way, it’s like going back to high school,” Evans said. “You’re going to class from 8 to 5, whereas in college [undergrad], you may have two or three hours between classes. You have so much material to study. You’re going from not as much school work to a lot, and it’s a sudden shock.”

Nearly all the former student-athletes agreed the first two years were the most challenging. The third and fourth years are predominantly in the hospital setting, so students not only learn, but also get on-the-job training in a career setting, adding some excitement to their academic pursuits. These years include rotations in both rural hospitals and large community hospitals, and obviously, provide hands-on experience.

Third-year students do nine clinical rotations, with a rotation in the fields of family medicine, pediatrics, underserved care, psychiatry, internal medicine, emergency medicine, surgery, geriatrics and obstetrics. They take a test at the end of each month and a comprehensive test at the end of the year.

Fourth-year students perform clinical rotations as well, but these rotations can be in areas that interest them or in areas where they wish to improve their skills. If all goes well after this year, students receive their DO’s. Once students get their DO’s, they begin their careers by serving a residency at a hospital, medical facility or clinic. In a residency, they practice medicine under the supervision of a fully licensed doctor, and they do this anywhere from three to seven years depending on the field. Finally, they must pass a written exam to become board certified.

To get to that point, though, they need to survive those tough first two years. The sheer volume of information leads to the necessity of managing one’s time diligently or else running the risk of getting behind and perhaps failing.

Fortunately, these former student-athletes learned all about managing their time during their undergraduate days of balancing academics and athletics.

Athletics helps

Dr. Amy Wetzel Doolan will finish a three-year residency in family medicine next summer and has applied for a one-year sports medicine fellowship through VCOM and Virginia Tech.

Taking classes as an undergraduate student possesses its own challenges, but student-athletes face even more demands while trying to succeed as an athlete as well as a student. The NCAA limits the amount of time a team can practice to 20 hours a week. However, being successful on the field or on the court as an individual or a team means putting in extra time beyond that 20 hours.

In fact, championships are played on the field or on the court – but they are won off of it.

To keep up with the demands on their time, student-athletes need to manage their time efficiently, not just to remain eligible, but also to make the grades that many of them expect. Given the volume of work associated with VCOM and the quick pace of the instructors, they also need to be able to manage their time – and fortunately their years in athletics honed that skill.

“There’s definitely a carryover, just from the work ethic and dedication and time management part of it,” Cook said. “I was balancing basketball and academics and that’s definitely prepared me. All those things apply to medical school.”

“The time management part has really helped me,” Doolan said. “I spent all this time practicing and lifting weights, and then when I went through VCOM, all that time was spent studying. The first two years are so intense and most have difficulty with the workload, but because of basketball, that was nothing new to me.”

The travel aspect of participating on a team also forces student-athletes to manage their time. For example, baseball and softball teams play more than 50 games a season, with many of those on the road. Also, basketball teams play more than 30 games a season, with numerous games on the road. Many of these games are during the week, meaning that student-athletes miss a chunk of class time.

That means they need to use their time efficiently to stay ahead academically.

“It was always an uphill battle because of that,” Harris said of the baseball team’s schedule. “You had to take it upon yourself to keep up with classes. You have to be prepared to stay ahead and you have to develop good study habits. It’s the same way in med school.”

Student-athletes also get the advantage of already having worked within a team concept when they enroll at VCOM. They occasionally work in groups as students, but more importantly, work in coordination with doctors and nurses while doing their clinical work in their third and fourth years. Having participated in team sports, they know how to interact and communicate to achieve the best possible result.

“It makes things more fun,” Evans said. “You’re working with a team of physicians and helping each other and helping the patient, and when you can all get along, that makes things fun. I don’t know if I would have done as well if I hadn’t been on a team where we were all helping each other and going after the same goal.”

The costs of becoming a doctor

These former student-athletes expected the heavy workload once they started at VCOM. They expected to pay that price.

But they are paying another price – literally – for the honor of becoming a doctor.

Tuition runs high at any medical school. By the time most students finish their fourth year, they will be in excess of $200,000 in debt.

In fact, Keats expects her final total to be around $220,000. Doolan and Dustin Dyer, a former men’s soccer player, expect their debt totals to be well over $200,000.

“It’s a little scary,” Keats said.

Most take out loans to pay the tuition. Granted, most of the former student-athletes received scholarship money during their undergraduate days at Tech and that alleviated a lot of pressure. Keats received a full scholarship for track and field. Doolan and Cook also received free rides to play basketball. The others may not have gotten full scholarships, but certainly got large chunks of their undergraduate educations paid for with scholarship dollars.

Yet $200,000 is a lot of money – and it can add to the pressure they already feel from taking a difficult course load.

“I think everyone worries about it at least a little,” Doolan said. “The scary thing is you have to make it through. Unless you get more training, there’s really not another [medical] field you can go into. You could be out a lot if you don’t make it through.

“But I’ve never once looked back and regretted my decision. Everything has been worth it so far. It’s so gratifying to be able to take care of people.”

“It’s almost impossible not to be a little worried, but it’s not something I sat around and dwelled on,” Prater said. “It’s really the only bad thing about medical school.”

VCOM does its best to help. It offers several scholarships and encourages students to apply for scholarships offered through outside agencies.

Also, many hospitals offer to help with the costs as an incentive for a student to practice medicine at that hospital for a specified period of time – while also paying him or her a salary. Harris took advantage of an offer from a hospital in his hometown of Louisa, Ky., a rural spot in northeastern Kentucky.

“They’re going to help with the cost, with the stipulation that I come back,” said Harris, who is in the second year of a three-year residency in family medicine (comprehensive health care to people of all ages) at Riverside Regional Medical Center in Newport News, Va. “That was fine with me and my wife. We’re both from there and I wanted to go back and practice family medicine.”

The military is also an option. Evans received the Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarship, a scholarship program in which the military pays a student’s medical school costs in return for a military service obligation of one year for each year funded.

“My wife and I looked at the costs, and we knew we could be sent to one of a handful of places and we knew we’d be happy in any of those places,” said Evans, who currently does clinical work at both Montgomery Regional Hospital and Wythe County Community Hospital in Wytheville, Va., and plans on being a Navy physician. “We talked about where we wanted to be as a family, and this [the scholarship] will help us meet our goals in the future as a family. It’s a choice I’m glad we made.”

Future plans

Professional doctors are in short supply – not just in rural areas, but all throughout the country – and because of the demand for them, they ultimately get paid nicely for their services. Of course, few go into medicine for the money. They go into it to help others.

“People think you’re going into it for the money,” Prater said. “But if you’re doing it for that, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.”

Once they become a DO’s, they will have limitless possibilities and opportunities in the medical profession.

Hardee, who is serving in the second year of a four-year residency at Geisinger Health Systems in Danville, Pa., plans on practicing in obstetrics and gynecology. A deeply religious young man, he has done a lot of medical missions work, including trips to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and to India after the tsunami. He will continue to do missions work.

But he also has another future goal.

“I wouldn’t mind going back there and teaching [at VCOM],” said Hardee, who also got his doctorate’s in international health education while at Tech. “Or maybe be the dean of a medical school, or even work as a hospital administrator.”

Some of these former student-athletes, like Hardee, Harris and Evans, have their immediate futures mapped out. Also, Prater and Dyer both plan on working in orthopedics (which involves joints, muscles, ligaments, tendons and nerves). Prater recently started an internship as part of a four-year residency at University Hospitals in Richmond Heights, Ohio (near Cleveland), while Dyer is doing rotations at Genesys Health Systems in Grand Blanc, Mich., and ultimately wants to return to his hometown of Richmond and practice as an orthopedic surgeon.

Doolan finishes her three-year residency in family medicine at Carilion Clinic in Roanoke, Va., next June and has applied for a sports medicine fellowship through VCOM and Virginia Tech. This is a one-year fellowship and will make her a sports medicine fellowship trained family practitioner. Elizabeth Gordon, a former tennis player, and Emily Bush, a former cheerleader, also are doing residencies in family medicine – Gordon at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tenn., and Bush at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, S.C.

Some, though, haven’t quite mapped out their paths.

“I’m open,” Cook said. “I have an interest in pediatrics (medical care for infants, children and adolescents). I’ll use my third and fourth year to get a feel for what grabs me.”

“I don’t know,” Keats said. “Maybe obstetrics or gynecology. I haven’t decided.”

For these former student-athletes, attending VCOM and pursuing a career in medicine was more than a decision. It was more than a sacrifice.

It was a calling.

“I would like to be a regular man in my late 20s, with a family and working an 8-5 job,” Hardee said. “But I truly feel I was called into this field. This was the avenue that was opened for me.

“It’s been hard, but it’s such a blessing to be a physician. To see people when they are most vulnerable and be able to help them … there just isn’t anything better than that.”



Amy Wetzel Doolan

Sport played: Women’s basketball

Years played: 1997-01

Undergraduate degree: BS, Biology

Graduate degree: MS, Health Promotion and Education

Medical degree: DO, Class of 2007

Currently: Doing a residency in family medicine at Carilion Health Systems in Roanoke, Va.

Billy Hardee

Sport played: Football

Years played: 1999-2002

Undergraduate degree: BS, Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise

Graduate degree: Ph.D, International Health Education

Medical degree: DO, Class of 2007

Currently: Doing a residency in emergency medicine at Geisinger Health Systems in Danville, Pa.

Elizabeth Gordon

Sport played: Women’s tennis

Years played: 2000-04

Undergraduate degree: BS, Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise

Medical degree: DO, Class of 2008

Currently: Doing a residency in family medicine at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tenn.

Spencer Harris

Sport played: Baseball

Years played: 2000-03

Undergraduate degree: BS, Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise

Medical degree: DO, Class of 2008

Currently: Doing a residency in family medicine at Riverside Regional Medical Center in Newport News, Va.

Emily Bush

Sport played: Cheerleading

Undergraduate degree: BA, Economics

Medical degree: DO, Class of 2009

Currently: Doing a residency in family medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, S.C.

Larry Gooss

Sport played: Cross country

Years played: 2000-02

Undergraduate degree: BS, Biology

Medical degree: DO, Class of 2009

Currently: Doing a residency in general surgery at Genesys Health Systems in Grand Blanc, Mich.

Canaan Prater

Sport played: Wrestling

Years played: 2001-05

Undergraduate degree: BS, Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise

Medical degree: DO, Class of 2009

Currently: Doing an internship as a traditional rotating intern at University Hospitals in Richmond Heights, Ohio

Dustin Dyer

Sport played: Men’s soccer

Years played: 2003-05

Undergraduate degree: BS, Biology

Medical degree: Will graduate from VCOM with a DO in 2010

Currently: A fourth-year medical student doing rotations at Genesys Health Systems in Grand Blanc, Mich.

Tommy Evans

Sport played: Swimming and diving

Years played: 2003-07

Undergraduate degree: BS, Biology

Medical degree: Will graduate from VCOM with a DO in 2011

Currently: A third-year medical student at VCOM doing rotations at Montgomery Regional Hospital and Wythe County Community Hospital

Ashleigh Keats

Sport played: Track and field

Years played: 2003-06

Undergraduate degree: BS, Chemistry

Medical degree: Will graduate from VCOM with a DO in 2011

Currently: A third-year medical student at VCOM doing rotations at Montgomery Regional Hospital and Wythe County Community Hospital

Troy Hoff

Sport played: Swimming and diving

Years played: 1997-2000

Undergraduate degree: BS, Biology

Graduate degree: Ph.D, Plant Physiology

Medical degree: Will graduate from VCOM with a DO in 2012

Currently: A second-year medical student at VCOM

Brittany Cook

Sport played: Women’s basketball

Years played: 2005-08

Undergraduate degree: BS, Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise

Medical degree: Will graduate from VCOM with a DO in 2013

Currently: A first-year medical student at VCOM