Health care is about life—giving life, nurturing life, improving life, and prolonging life. Young men and women entering a career in health and medicine have the promise of rewards measured in patients, careers, and opportunities. And careers in health care have respect and prestige few professions can match.
Erika Tanaka, Regis University
What do you do when tragedy shakes your world? You strive to overcome it, and in the end, hopefully, it makes you stronger, as it did for Erika Tanaka.
The daughter of a Vietnam refugee mother and a Japanese father, Erika says her family has always been her foundation. “My mother told me, ‘Many people in your life will come and go, but your family will always be there for you.’ I have taken this advice to heart,” she says. “I am happiest when I am with my family and feel blessed to have such close relationships with them.”
Hailing from Golden, Colorado, Erika says her life was filled with outdoor activities—running, hiking, and skiing. “People here are active and healthy,” she says. “Growing up in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains taught me great habits; in fact, one of the things I am most proud of is my healthy diet and commitment to physical fitness.”
Erika’s parents had always emphasized the importance of education and of building a solid career in a profession such as law, medicine, or engineering, so there was never any question if Erika would go to college, just which one she would choose. Then, family circumstances narrowed her decision.
During Erika’s senior year, her mother developed breast cancer, and Erika decided she wanted to attend a college close to home. She applied to a number of universities and was offered a full-tuition biology scholarship at Regis University in Denver, Colorado. Majoring in biology and minoring in Spanish, Erika was also selected for the University’s honors program.
Dr. Sally Spencer Thomas, Erika’s mentor, played a pivotal role in turning another tragedy in Erika’s life into lifelong inspiration. “She supported me through the grief of losing a dear friend to suicide my freshman year and helped me find my identity as a leader and mental health advocate.” For Erika, Regis staff and students became a second family by supporting her and making college a home away from home.
Erika was also able to dive into service projects that “ranged from one-day community clean-ups to month-long trips overseas, including one to teach English in Thailand and Vietnam,” she says. “That trip not only gave me a once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience life outside of the U.S., it also opened my eyes in unexpected ways. I realized how fortunate I was to even be able to dream of a career in medicine.”
Upon graduating from Regis in 2010, Erika applied to med schools and was accepted at several. Even though moving away from home was difficult, she chose Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland. Not only did Johns Hopkins offer a world-class education, she identified with its mandate to reach out to “the indigent sick of this city and its environs, without regard to sex, age, or color.” Now in her third year, doing rotations and thinking about specializing in ophthalmology, Erika feels choosing Johns Hopkins was one of the best decisions of her life.
Another great decision? Marrying her longtime boyfriend after finishing med school in 2014. When Erika talks about him, you can tell she’s excited for the future: “He’s not only loving and generous, he’s also drop-dead gorgeous!” Graduation from med school and marriage to a wonderful guy? Erika says happily, “How’s that for the whole package?”
Dharm Patel, Monmouth University
Once on a path to become a physician, Dharm Patel modified his goals, tapping into his youthful love of scientific research.
His parents emigrated from India to the United States so their children would have a better chance for success, and Dharm grew up in Avenel, New Jersey. In high school Dharm was active in the Waksman Student Scholars Club, the Asian and Environmental clubs, and tennis. Even then, he found his niche in research science. “[High school] is where I first became involved in actually doing novel science,” he says. “I sequenced a portion of the DNA of brine shrimp and used that sequence to identify the gene and its homologues in other organisms.”
“When I was in 7th grade, my mother had a stroke, so I had a lot of exposure to the medical field after that,” Dharm says. “I really wanted to help people when they most needed it, like the health professionals who had helped my mother and my family.” Following high school in 2008, Dharm was accepted at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey.
Majoring in biology with an emphasis on molecular cell physiology, Dharm discovered what he enjoyed most was working in the lab. He says he found “tremendous joy and freedom in being at the lab bench and having the unparalleled experience of learning, failing, and finally succeeding in answering questions.” His lab experiences, however, didn’t all go as planned.
“The first day of joining Dr. Palladino’s lab, my PI (principle investigator) asked me to make a certain solution,” Dharm says. “I spilled bromophenol blue powder all around the lab without realizing it (bromophenol blue is an orange powder and turns blue when aqueous). Long story short, I turned the entire floor of the lab a brilliant blue for the next month. My PI walked in and just smiled. And that is the story I tell every new student starting in the lab: you will make every mistake you possibly can when running an experiment—but most of them, you will never repeat!”
Following graduation from Monmouth in 2012, Dharm entered the Rutgers University molecular biosciences Ph.D. program, pursuing research rather than medicine. He urges other college students to take time to find themselves, to discover their own passions, and to make the difficult decisions for the right reasons.
“I am still interested in helping people, but it won’t be as hands-on. For my graduate work, I would like to work on a project that takes discoveries made in the lab and translates them to the clinic in helping patients,” Dharm says. “I want to be the kind of scientist who is [a] liaison between the lab bench and the clinic.”
Casey Crocker, California Baptist University
A newly minted physician assistant, Casey grew up in Rancho Penasquitos, a suburb of San Diego, California. In high school, Casey was active in sports—basketball, track & field, and field hockey—plus in her junior year she also got a job working at an elementary school after-school program. “I spent my free time at church helping out in the children’s classes, setting up for events, and playing guitar in the youth worship band. I loved always having something to do, and I kept a busy schedule,” she says.
While Casey was still in high school, her mother was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. It was so serious that her mother’s doctors initially thought that she might not live long enough to see Casey graduate.
Coping with the reality of her mother’s illness played a big role in Casey’s future. While in biology class, she learned cancer cells are abnormal cells that replicate out of control. “Understanding how the disease works made it less scary for me,” she says. “After going through that experience, I wanted to learn everything I could about all human diseases to be able to help people understand and cope with their illnesses.”
After listening to a California Baptist University (CBU) counselor speak at her church, Casey visited the campus and loved it. She says she felt welcome, sensed everyone was friendly and real, and made her decision.
Casey was undeclared her first year at CBU, but learned about the health science major with an emphasis on physician assistant studies. She declared her sophomore year, taking global studies as a minor.
Casey’s experience as a resident assistant (RA) at CBU became a significant learning experience too. “We were trained to deal with anything from angry and outraged residents to suicidal ones,” she says. “Above all, being an RA taught me selflessness and how to care for other people above myself. Without this skill I think it would have been very hard to have entered the health care field, which is all about serving others in need.”
While at CBU, she also spent time teaching at a sports camp in Germany and studying culture and religion in Turkey. These non-academic experiences, she says, contributed to her growth as a person and expanded her world-view. She feels these kinds of opportunities make California Baptist a fine place to be, because students who go there develop not only academically, but also socially.
After graduating in 2010, Casey enrolled in Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California. She graduated from there last summer and is now a physician assistant.
Casey considers herself blessed in many ways, but her biggest blessing was that, “thanks to my mom’s many doctors, and the support of our church friends and family, my mother was able to attend and participate in my hooding ceremony.”