Chapman Lecture About Physician Assistants Inspires NAC Students To Achieve Their Goals
The Chapman Visiting Scholars Series began its fourth year with Dr. Michael Estrada’s presentation, “Jobs of the Future – Physician Assistant: An Enterprising Profession for an Evolving Healthcare System.” During the lecture, students of the Nicholas Academic Centers learned more than the technical requirements of becoming a Physician Assistant, however. Dr. Estrada, the founding director of Chapman University’s new Physician Assistant Studies Program, shared his story with students and inspired them to pursue their passion and achieve their goals in whichever field they choose.
Born and raised in East Los Angeles, sharing a dirt-floor garage with his mother and grandmother, Dr. Estrada comes from humble beginnings. With no stove for cooking or running water for bathing, he learned to appreciate cooking outside on the grill and washing up in the morning by running through the sprinklers. Despite the hardships, he realized he had more reasons to give thanks than to give up. He had food, clothes, shelter, and a caring family.
Dr. Estrada’s trajectory into working in the medical field started at an early age, when he would take the bus with his grandmother to visit his mother while she worked as a switchboard operator at the hospital. Dr. Estrada remembers, “I think that was the first time that I ever got that vision of what it is I wanted to do.” At the hospital, a woman from payroll would give him an envelope with candies and coins. Dr. Estrada grins while sharing the story, adding, “Who doesn’t love chocolates?”
Since he was young, Dr. Estrada’s mother always told him to go to school and graduate so that he could get a good job and take care of his family. He notes, however, that as important as the family unit is, especially in the Latino culture, sometimes the family model has to be broken for greater success down the road, which often involves leaving the family to take advantage of academic and professional opportunities.
While striking out on his own, first at the University of La Verne, Dr. Estrada experienced culture shock, but he adjusted and learned to identify with those outside of his culture. Before long, he joined the Black Student Union. “It allowed me to appreciate other people’s cultures, and others’ perspectives on what it is they had to do to get where they were at.”
After graduating college, Dr. Estrada’s professional career in the medical field began when he became an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). During a visit to Soledad, he met the mayor, who offered him a job managing an ambulance unit. “I had my abuelita and my mom, and here I was entertaining the thought of taking a job that was 500 miles away, and that’s hard, thinking about that, leaving your family.” Realizing the significance of the opportunity, Dr. Estrada adds, “As hard as the decision was, there I was in Soledad.”
It was Dr. Estrada’s experience in Soledad that led him closer to becoming a Physician Assistant. In a rural setting with the nearest hospital over 50 miles away in Salinas, Dr. Estrada’s skills as an EMT were continually put to the test. After he helped deliver a baby in a makeshift apartment for migrant workers, and because he spoke fluent Spanish, the local Latino population began to call him for basic medical services, like having a sore back or a fever. On one occasion, about a year and a half into his tenure in Soledad, Dr. Estrada received a call concerning a collision between a big truck and a train. After he found the truck driver, who had been pinned under the engine in a smashed-in cab, he called for an emergency helicopter transport. Unfortunately, no helicopters were immediately available, so the patient was taken to urgent care in nearby Gonzales. Before the medical team arrived via helicopter, a Physician Assistant prepped the patient. Dr. Estrada was amazed at what he saw. Before this day, he had never even heard of Physician Assistants. Because of this man’s skill, the patient had a chance at life. Dr. Estrada wanted to provide the same level of care.
A few years later, and not without obstacles, Dr. Estrada earned a place in the PA program at USC, where he later earned his Master’s Degree. He notes, however, that he realized his true calling while working in the ER. One day, a woman brought in a baby and asked for help. The baby had already died, and upon further questioning, the cause of death seemed to be shaken baby syndrome. The mother had sought the help of a sobadora (masseuse) to heal the baby, but the treatment did more damage than good. Most on the medical team believed the mother should have been brought up on charges of child abuse, but Dr. Estrada recognized the cultural disparity present in the situation. “If you don’t understand someone’s culture and beliefs, how can you say that they’ve done something wrong?” After moving on from the ER and entering family practice to work with patients of Latino backgrounds, Dr. Estrada took on a new mission. “My role wasn’t primarily to just see patients to help them, but also to educate them, and that’s the role of the health professional today.”
To better explain a Physician Assistant’s role, Dr. Estrada shared a Power Point presentation on the history of PAs and then asked students to divide into groups of 4 or 5 for a workshop. Dr. Estrada instructed each group to determine probable causes for a 16-year-old boy with an upset stomach. Students came up with several questions to diagnose the cause of illness. Some of the diagnoses included a ruptured appendix, ulcer, diabetes, constipation, and stress. The exercise, engineered to help students understand how to make basic observations, also revealed how familiar students already are with basic doctor-patient interactions.
Toward the end of the lecture, Dr. Estrada credited his family and mentors for helping him make it through. “It’s really important to understand that we’ve all arrived here, to this very moment, because other people stood behind us and pushed us forward. They were able to see whatever little light there is inside of you, and they know how to make it shine and make it bright so that you can get out there and do whatever it is that you envision in your mind that you want to do.” He closed with words of encouragement for the students. “It’s not going to be easy, but the good things in life cuestan (cost); don’t get discouraged because some day, you’re going to be standing up here presenting to [those who follow you].”
After the lecture, a number of NAC students shared their thoughts about what they had learned from Dr. Estrada. A first-time attendee of the Chapman Visiting Scholars Series, NAC student Marcy Lazaro stated, “This opened my eyes to different possibilities of what I can do to help people.” NAC student Gabriel Piñon remarked, “Although I don’t really want to pursue [becoming a Physician Assistant], Dr. Estrada really inspired me to follow my dreams like he did his.” And finally, NAC student Kathy Orozco added, “I wanted to go into the medical field, but this inspired me to get more into it.”