This week, we contacted Julia Smith, a 2019 UVM alum with an interesting path to her future (and unique) career as an an anesthesiologist assistant (AA). While a student, Julia was actively involved in UVM Rescue. Since graduating, she has worked full-time as an emergency department technician at the UVMMC Emergency Department. In August, she will begin the Master of Anesthesia program at the University of Colorado.
Experience at UVM
Julia came to UVM in 2015 as a biology major though soon shifted her focus to Microbiology and Molecular Genetics. In the microbiology department, she was able to establish connections which helped her attain many goals at UVM and beyond, including eventually getting accepted into the University of Colorado Masters of Anesthesia program. She feels incredibly lucky for the people she’s met and the path she chose at UVM: “I surely would not have had the experiences I did without everyone’s guidance.”
Julia arrived at UVM with life experiences that were a driving force behind her desire to give to others and to be there in times of need. She says that it almost feels like it was her “destiny” to find UVM Rescue. Through Rescue, she discovered the satisfaction of learning how to manage a person’s needs in a time of crisis and loved being able to directly apply new skills in the service of others. Julia reflects that each of her classes within the Microbiology Department challenged her to evaluate how learning and knowledge fit into her pursuit of a career in medicine. Her experiential learning as a first responder allowed her to view her coursework “less like a wall to achievement and more like a conduit to it.” She is amazed at the breadth of knowledge needed to care for patients, and the challenges of applying that knowledge in real life situations. She has come to understand that a career in healthcare is a lifelong journey, not a final destination.
Inspiration for Career Path
Julia’s introduction to healthcare came at an early age. She remembers a time when she was eleven years old, sitting in the corner of an operating room while her mother, a nurse anesthetist (CRNA), quickly set up the equipment and medications she would need for her next case. Since that day, Julia has wanted to pursue a career in healthcare. She was fortunate that her mother was able to coordinate many unique shadowing opportunities for her during high school, across a wide variety of medical roles at the hospital.
At UVM, Julia dedicated an exceptional number of hours on the Rescue crew, being trusted in multiple roles, and responding to hundreds of calls. She sees Rescue as her most significant accomplishment at UVM.
In the growth years she’s had since graduating, Julia has been working as an Emergency Department (ED) Tech at UVMMC ED. Being full-time in the ED has allowed her to learn a lot about the realities of patients in Vermont, and about the complexity of the healthcare system. Through her work, she interacts not only with physicians, but with physician assistants, pharmacists, dentists, residents, and even certified anesthesiologist assistants (CAA). Her role as an ED Tech involves phlebotomy, and performing EKGs, but also more unique tasks, like running the mass transfusion machine (known as the Belmont), and obtaining intravenous access on all critical patients including those who are presenting to the emergency department after significant trauma, or with strokes, myocardial infarction, and other acute illnesses. It is probably no surprise that by this point, Julia feels she has learned how to work well, and communicate clearly, with patients and coworkers, even in very stressful situations.
During much of her time as an undergraduate, Julia thought medical school was the one and only path that she could see herself following. Her thoughts were broadened by the many immersive clinical experiences, and due to certain poignant events in her life. She is grateful for the resources available at UVM, including pre-health advising, which she utilized throughout her time at UVM. “Cara [Calvelli] was always available to me as a sounding board and quite often helped and encouraged me” to explore different options. “In fact, it wasn’t until I had a meeting with her after graduation that I had even heard of the AA career.“ Once she became more acquainted with the field of anesthesia, Julia knew it was the right one for her. She likes how the career will draw upon her undergraduate interests in anatomy & physiology and pharmacology, and she’s also excited about how compact and affordable the education is relative to medical school: In 2+ years, she will be working in the field of her choice. The fact that she will be relocating to Colorado for her education is an extra bonus!
Role of an Anesthesiologist Assistant (AA)
A certified anesthesiologist assistant (CAA) works in hospitals and surgical centers and delivers anesthesia under the medical direction of an anesthesiologist. Furthermore, CAAs can focus within a specific specialty if desired, such as pediatric anesthesia, neurology, or even trauma.
To become an anesthesiologist assistant, a Master of Science in Anesthesia (MSA) is required, which is typically 24-28 months in length, and involves didactic instruction, simulation labs, as well as hands-on clinical training. More often than not, MSA Programs get students into the operating room within the first month of the program, allowing them to observe and apply concepts from the classroom to real-life situations. A certification examination is then required to use the initials “CAA.”
Advice to Current UVM Students:
Julia says, “The best advice I can give to current UVM students is to utilize your resources! UVM has so many people available that can offer you so much support. Do not wait until your senior year to start making these connections. Although you may feel like a small fish in a very big pond your freshman year, professors want to help and guide you down the right path. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people within the Burlington community as well.”
Other advice from Julia:
- Get involved in a club of interests but also go out of your way to meet people with many different interests.
- Keep in mind that the friends you choose your first year at UVM will shape your college experience. Make sure that friend group includes people who are supportive of your desire to study hard.
- Don’t be afraid to try something new or something that may challenge you!
Julia wants to remind students that everyone’s college experience is unique, “so don’t compare yourself to other people. Don’t fret if your college life does not look like it does in the movies or completely match the ideas you had in your head.” She recommends frequently reminding yourself that you are capable of achieving anything you put your mind to. “Take every opportunity as a learning opportunity. Allow yourself to make mistakes and learn from them. Also, make sure you learn from others’ mistakes and successes.”
A final thought from Julia: “It is ok to not know exactly what you want to do when you graduate. Your path to success does not have to be linear. As I reflect on the last few years of my life, I appreciate the time I took to figure out exactly what I wanted to pursue. At first, I was very hesitant to take a GAP year (now called growth year), but now I’m very thankful for the time I have had after graduation. “
Julia’s parting words: “Aim high and don’t give up!”
Keep anesthesiologist assistant on your radar as you consider your future as a healthcare professional.