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Former student-athletes ready for next chapter after graduation from VCOM

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Marie Johnston and Tara Feehan celebrated the end of a long journey after getting their Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degrees at the Edward Via Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine in early May. Photo courtesy Virginia Tech.

When Tara Feehan left Long Island in the summer of 2013 and enrolled at Virginia Tech, she arrived fully expecting to get a degree in biology, become a school teacher, and coach lacrosse.

Yet just a few weeks ago, the former Virginia Tech lacrosse player was driving to Brandon, Fla., with her sister to begin her four-year residency in obstetrics and gynecology as a physician at Brandon Regional Hospital outside of Tampa.

Take a conversation with an uncle who is a doctor and mix it with a shadowing opportunity at a hospital near her hometown during the summer following her sophomore year, and all of the sudden, a life’s initial plan requires major editing.

“I realized medicine was calling me my entire life,” she said.

Feehan and another former Virginia Tech student-athlete, Marie Johnston, both graduated from the Edward Via Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM) on May 8. The independent medical school resides in the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center and operates on an agreement with the university that allows its students to access many of Virginia Tech’s facilities and student services.

VCOM’s commencement ceremony marked the end of formal education for both Feehan and Johnston. They now embark on residencies in which they work with other doctors in their preferred fields of medical interest – but do so with the prefix “Dr.” attached to their names.

“I don’t think it’s really hit me yet,” Johnston said. “I think hearing that brings a sense of responsibility to me, and I think once residency starts and I really enter into that role, it’ll bring a lot more meaning. But it’s very surreal right now. I think it’ll hit me more once I start taking care of people.”

Feehan, a lacrosse player from 2013-17, and Johnston, who played women’s soccer and ran track before graduating in 2016, marked the 17th and 18th former Virginia Tech student-athletes to receive a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree from VCOM since the founding of the school in 2002 (the first class graduated in 2007). Also this year, Colleen Bannigan received a D.O. degree. Bannigan worked as a trainer in the Virginia Tech Athletics Department before matriculating to VCOM.

Counting trainers and spirit squad members along with student-athletes, 25 with ties to Virginia Tech Athletics are now medical doctors.

“I just get really excited about that because many of them might have had a thought about, ‘Well, maybe I’d like to be involved in medicine,’” said Gunnar Brolinson, the vice provost for research at VCOM and also a team physician within Virginia Tech Athletics. “Then they come [as student-athletes] and see the kinds of physicians we have here and interact with them, so I think it’s a testament to our sports medicine fellowship training program that students from Virginia Tech interact with us and then become students at VCOM because of the positive interactions they’ve had with our medical team.

“It just makes a great statement about our program that kids who are here competing as Virginia Tech athletes would think highly enough of us collectively to want to matriculate at VCOM.”

That so many with an athletics background pursue and ultimately find success as doctors comes as no surprise to Brolinson. During his work as a team physician for Virginia Tech Athletics, he gets a first-hand view of the quality of individuals who just also happen to be competing for the Hokies. Plus, what they go through as student-athletes prepares them well for a career in medicine.

“If you’re a varsity college athlete, you have to be really well organized,” Brolinson said. “You have to be disciplined. The organizational skills and the discipline that you bring to participating as a varsity college athlete, it’s the same type of organization and discipline that you have to bring to your study skills as a medical student.”

“The other piece is teamwork, and people don’t often understand the value of teamwork,” he added. “But one of my little sayings is ‘If you’re good in the locker room, you’re going to be good in the boardroom.’ Where that applies to medicine is that medicine is practiced by teams of people. There are nurses involved, there are medical assistants involved, there are radiology techs involved – there is a whole group of folks involved in a team that’s taking care of a patient. As a team member in sports, you learn how to communicate with your teammates, what their strengths are and what their weaknesses are, so being a good teammate is extremely important in medicine as you start to care for patients.”

That Feehan and Johnston are now doctors still seems hard for them to imagine after spending four years of grinding through various tests, study sessions, reading, and lab assignments – and this coming after years of undergraduate work (Feehan graduated with a degree in biology; Johnson with a degree in human nutrition, foods, and exercise). In addition, they spent this past year doing clinical rotations during a pandemic that created ever-changing conditions.

Johnston worked her rotations at Riverside Regional Medical Center in Newport News, Virginia, not far from her hometown in Midlothian. Feehan worked rotations at medical centers in Danville, Virginia; York, Pennsylvania; Columbus, Ohio; and Wyandotte, Michigan.

Typical of student-athletes, they embraced all challenges and refused to let fear keep them from their goals. The pandemic only reinforced their decisions to get into medicine.

“I think it was just having the mentality of I want to serve our community, our country, and our health care system, and the best way to do that was to go to work and be there for patients and be there for support,” Feehan said. “Just the thought of not being there was worse than actually being there and at risk … Just the call for service outweighed the fear of losing my life or affecting other people or seeing that risk in general.”

“If anything, it [the pandemic] strengthened my desire and reassured my decision to enter the medical field,” Johnston said. “I want to be that sense of peace and hope in the midst of the chaos. Throughout the pandemic, a lot of people are looking for answers and reassurance, and bringing that to people is something that I really value, just having that responsibility. I see it as an opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Following commencement, Feehan and Johnston wasted little time in preparing for the next journey in their careers. Feehan landed a residency in Brandon, Florida, enabling her to be with her husband, who is stationed at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. She starts her residency on June 28.

Johnston also landed in a perfect situation. She starts a four-year residency in anesthesiology at Medstar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., in mid-June and will be just two hours from her family and support system in Midlothian.

Both are excited about their futures.

“I like a challenge, and I know it’s going to be tough, and I think that athletics has really prepared me for this,” Johnston said. “There are some things that you can’t learn in any other aspect such as taking on criticism, working to improve, people telling you what to do, taking one for the team, and working well with others – so many things that we’re taught through sports, and I really miss that.

“I’m looking forward to being in that role again, and I know there are going to be some times when I’m just going to have to grind it out, and it’s going to be tough, but that’s one of the biggest reasons I loved sports to begin with. So, I think being in this role where I have the opportunity to learn and really make a difference, I’m excited to take that on.”

Story by Jimmy Robertson


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