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Compassionate care: Former patient studying to become PA

March 3, 2023

3 + 2 PA School of Sciences Stories

Britney Blacker ’23 can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to go into medicine. She has photos of herself, dressed in scrubs, at the age of 4. And when Blacker wasn’t dreaming of medicine, she was dreaming of softball.

She chose to leave her hometown of Castle Rock, Colo., to attend school nearly 1,000 miles away after doing an online search for Division III schools where she could both play softball and study in the sciences. She found Saint Mary’s University. 

A campus visit further narrowed her search, and when she was accepted into Saint Mary’s 3+2 physician assistant program with Mayo Clinic School of Health Sciences, her decision was solidified.

“When the No. 1 hospital in the nation says, ‘Hey want to come study with us?’, you don’t really say no,” she said.

What draws Blacker to medicine is twofold. She loves the combination of solving problems and interacting with people. “Healthcare is a beautiful world where I get to help people but also be a scientist,” she said. “It’s about being able to make a difference.” 

The past few years, Blacker has gotten an in-depth look at healthcare from the other side — as a patient. 

Her sophomore year, she required hip surgery. Blacker next suffered a blood clot, and through the surgeries and extended hospital stays, she struggled to keep her grades at the required GPA level to continue in the highly rigorous program.

Appropriately, Blacker — a former Cardinal infielder — summarizes life using a softball metaphor.

“Life sometimes throws you curveballs, but God also gives you a bat,” she says with a smile and a shoulder shrug. 

Despite the obstacles, Blacker — now in the +2 portion of the program — has persevered and credits her team, both on the ballfield and in the classroom, with helping her stay in the game.

“I ended up dropping down to 12 credits at one point because I was in a wheelchair, so getting around was difficult,” she said. “All the professors, and my adviser, were super understanding. And the softball team too. The support that I had from them was awesome. In this program, I have never once felt like a number. I tell stories to my family members who went to big colleges about how my faculty doesn’t just ask me, ‘How was our game?’ They know how the game was because they already know if we won. It’s a community.”

Blacker hopes her in-depth knowledge as a patient helps her become a better PA.

“I hope it will help me be more empathetic with a better understanding of what it feels like to be a patient,” she said. “In the ICU on my third day, my hair was a mess and I didn’t feel human. A nurse asked if she could braid my hair, and it made me feel so much more human. That’s something I will carry through with me for my PA career and the rest of my life.”

All PA students spend their first three years on the Winona Campus; the following two years, they learn from Mayo Clinic School of Health Sciences faculty at the university’s Rochester Campus. In Rochester, they engage in clinical learning experiences at Mayo Clinic in Rochester and throughout the Mayo Clinic Health System.

At the end of this year, Blacker will earn a B.A. in Biology Health Sciences, and at the end of next year, she’ll earn a Master of Health Sciences degree in Physician Assistant Studies from Mayo Clinic School of Health Sciences.

Blacker said her experiences on both campuses have been great. And she’s excited that learning is more hands-on and clinically based. “Now it isn’t just ‘What is this bone?’ It’s ‘There’s a 65-year-old man experiencing pain in this region; where is the fracture?’ It isn’t just a true or false question.”

She’s also performing pap smears, drawing blood, and working on both manikins in the sim center or on nurses from Mayo Clinic who volunteer as patients but also expertly guide students through the process.

“Every day I feel like I don’t deserve it,” Blacker said. “This is a world class education. From the livestreams of the cadavers, to the quality of the videos, to the way they teach, it’s a whole other level of education.

“And the emphasis is not only on the learning but about humanity,” she added. “You are treating people, and you need to be compassionate.”

Blacker said any students who know with certainty they want to be a PA should apply to Saint Mary’s for several reasons. “I absolutely would recommend the program,” she said. “It’s a great option to be graduating earlier, and you are going to be challenged and be building your relationships with Mayo Clinic professionals early. It does take a year of your undergraduate experience, which is a sacrifice I knew I wanted to make, because I’m passionate about the PA program.

“I think there are very few programs out there like this one that provide the opportunities that this one does.”