Role Call: Real Women in Health Care

Melissa is a Physician Assistant in Boston.

Melissa is a Physician Assistant in Boston.

Role Call is a Petal + Sass blog section featuring interviews with professional young women occupying diverse careers- and their advice to teens.

Name: Melissa Ayala

Age: A solid 33.

College & major: MVCC, Florida Atlantic University, & Le Moyne College (A lot of transfers based on financial status), Biology/Pre-Med.

Graduate school & concentration: Le Moyne College, Physician Assistant Studies Masters.

Past jobs: Food Service in a nursing home, Waitress at Ruby Tuesdays, Biller and Coder at a doctor’s office, Medical Assistant, Nurses Aid, Bartender

Current occupation: Physician Assistant

How did you become involved in medicine? Two reasons; my dad is a doctor and I grew up surrounded by it, spending times with him in the call rooms, on hospital rounds, etc. The other reason is that my brother became very ill at a very young age with crohn’s disease, and we all had to change his colostomy bag, see him in a lot of pain, and wait in the waiting rooms during all of his surgeries. All of this made me realize that I wanted to be involved in medicine in some form.

What was your college experience like, and how did it prepare you for your career? I’d call my college experience a pretty uneventful one in terms of my career. I never got to live in a dorm and took 1-2 classes at a time per semester because it was all I could afford, and I was also working. I was determined to do it by myself and not be dependent on my parents – even though in hindsight that was a bad idea (take money whenever you can). I worked hard and played hard, and felt that doing so made me grow up faster. In my career I have learned to work hard right out of the gate; I felt I had to prove myself as a student and then at work all over again.

What are some of the differences between being a Physician Assistant (PA) and a doctor, and why did you choose to pursue being PA instead? PAs learn through a medical school model but attend way less school than a doctor has to. We do 90% of what doctors do, just under their supervision. I see patients, diagnose, order labs and tests, do physicals, patient education, pap smears, see pregnant ladies, adjust medication, and prescribe everything but morphine. That’s only for family medicine; other specialized PAs also assist in surgeries and can go into almost any field without having to go through special testing. They just need someone to train them. Plus, having MDs be responsible for most things is a nice perk.

I chose to be a PA rather than a doctor because I saw my dad, a family physician, live out a poor work/life balance. To be honest, most of my friends who are physicians have extremely busy lives and it just seemed dumb to me to go through all of that schooling in the prime of your life. I wanted to work hard, but I didn’t want to bring it home with me, so this was the perfect balance for someone like me. I don’t mind being number two, I’m not that competitive and I like having fun way too much to be a doctor.

What do you love most about being a PA? The work-life balance and the stories and lives of the patients that I see. I typically work with the under-served and it keeps me in check. I don’t complain about life as much, and it teaches me about empathy.

What is your least favorite aspect?  My least favorite aspect is the competitive environment it causes among MDs and PAs. Also, at first it feels like you are immediately killing everyone and you don’t know what you’re doing. If you don’t have good training or a good supervising MD, your self esteem can really get you down.

Do you feel that women, Latina women in particular, are underrepresented in medicine? Depending on the field, yes, women are underrepresented. In family medicine there seem to be many women practicing, but still fewer women practice than men. There were little to no Latina PAs working in the three health care centers I’ve worked in so far.

What obstacles do you face pursuing your field of work? I face high expectations and low self esteem. I want to know everything so that I’m considered a good PA, but the truth is it takes a while to get to that level and I’m hard on myself. Also, I’ve always wanted to work abroad and there are too many barriers for that, which is unfortunate because the need is there. No one really knows what a PA is in Africa, so it’s hard to convince a country that you can help.

What advice would you give to girls considering a career path in medicine? Do it, do it, do it. If I can do it, you can too. Ask anyone who knows me and they’d tell you they were worried about me and didn’t think I could do it. And I did. It took all the strength and brainpower I had. Lots of nights studying and ‘missing out.’  It was 100% the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and it has been 5 years. I know what I want, I know what I need to feel confident at work, and all I can tell you is that tomorrow is a new day. You’ll want to quit almost every day but then you wake up and do it again. Plus, once you’re there, it’s secure. You’re a wanted person with these set of skills, and the people you will treat will make you a better human being. They teach you how to be this compassionate person that you never thought you were.

What would you wear to a job interview? Power suits. If I have an interview I dress like a man.

Any favorite websites particular to your field (or ones you just love for fun)? I use Up To Date on the daily. I like using Medline for patients. I’ve even used YouTube to teach patients how to use their insulin or learn about a particular condition. Sometimes there are these anonymous blogs about difficult patients that give me a chuckle (I haven’t used the word chuckle in years.)

Looking back, what general life advice would you give to your former high-school self? I would have told myself to relax and to allow myself to be who I was. I was a huge weirdo and ball of emotions, and looking back, it was totally normal. And even now after high school, the “cool” people aren’t that cool. At. All. They were just as insecure as you were.

Any other relevant info or words of wisdom? After being in the medical field for a few years, I will tell you that no one on their deathbed said: “I wish I worked more.” You need a work-life balance from beginning to end. I learned a lot from dying patients and they all come to the same conclusion: Enjoy life to the fullest, everything else will fall into place.

You can view more ‘Role Call’ interviews here.

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