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Sacred Heart’s first Physician Assistant Graduates Excited to Enter Workforce

After two years of learning, they are ready to go

Christopher Marks speaks at graduation; Professor Harry Pomeranz works with Chase Hixson at the Tandet facility; and Meredith Braga poses for a photo with President John Petillo on graduation day.

In December, Sacred Heart University realized a goal that was five years in the making when the students in its first physician assistant (PA) program graduated.

Twenty-six students received their degrees after completing an intense, 27-month program comprising 12 months of classroom work, followed by a 15-month clinical phase, fulfilling 2,000 hours of experience in medical specialties. They worked tirelessly at a renovated, state-of-the-art facility, the Tandet Center, adjacent to Stamford Hospital, where they learned and excelled. All students completed clinical rotations at Stamford Hospital and other SHU-affiliated health-care sites.

The graduates, hailing from seven states, many with families, challenged themselves and took on the program with the goal of making a difference in health care.

Graduate Meredith Braga, 33, of East Hartford, wanted to advance her career. While taking courses at SHU, she also raised three children. Braga said handling that schedule was difficult, but the hard work paid off: she has a job lined up at Hartford Hospital.

Graduate and class president Christopher Marks, 28, grew up in Newtown. He didn’t know he wanted to pursue health care until he suffered an injury in high school. “I think having seen things from a patient’s perspective and observing how dedicated clinicians are to their patients, I quickly appreciated what a rewarding field health care could be,” he said.

Marks said he always pursues new opportunities, and enrolling in the PA program was no different. “I was intrigued with the idea that I could play a significant role in establishing this new program as one that is sought after by students and respected by professionals,” he said. “This is a satisfying retrospective to have as an alumnus.”

After Marks was accepted at SHU and starting attending classes, he realized the program’s expectations were not conservative. “Despite being a new program, we were challenged to be our very best from day one.”

Moreover, he credited the faculty’s “immense clinical experience” with helping him and his peers prepare for exams and the clinical world.

“The facilities were newly renovated when I started, with two large classrooms, an anatomage table and multiple breakout study rooms, equipped with large monitors for group studying,” Marks said. “I can’t begin to describe how essential those breakout rooms were to my success in the program.”

Being in the Tandet Center right next to the Stamford Hospital was ideal, Marks said. “Stamford as a city has so much to offer outside the landscape of the school, that it plays a significant role in the enjoyment of graduate school,” he explained.

Since graduating in December, Marks has accepted a job at Stamford Hospital as part of a PA orthopedics trauma team. He said he also will work part-time with an ER team in North Central Bronx Hospital.

At the graduation ceremony, Chase Hixson from Fresno, Calif., said he felt ecstatic. Recalling his experience over the last two years, he said, “There were many ups and downs,” and he referred to the program as “intense.” The 29-year-old said he always wanted to go into health care because he enjoys talking to people. “I want to help make the world a better place, one person at a time,” said Hixson, who has accepted a job at Family HealthCare Network in Visalia, Calif.

Nationally, research has shown an increasing physician shortage, spurring the need for more PAs. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected job growth of 38 percent for PAs between 2012 and 2022, and according to the American Academy of Physician Assistants, only 22 percent of Connecticut PAs work in primary care. These realities, combined with the country’s aging population, chronic health needs and increasing demand for health services driven by the Affordable Care Act, were primary factors in Sacred Heart’s decision to establish its PA program.

For more information on the PA program visit, www.sacredheart.edu/pa.