Voices of HMSOM: Pema Brings Hard Work from the Pool to School
August 07, 2023
Though both his parents are physicians, Patrick Pema had no intention of becoming a doctor.
All that changed with a single prognosis.
When Pema was in high school, his mother developed preeclampsia during a pregnancy. The prognosis was very bleak – as Pema recalls it was a “very dark time” for the family, especially one Christmas in the hospital with mom under constant supervision.
But the doctors did everything they could. The attentive and ultimately life-saving care given to his mother, and the baby who would become his beloved brother Josh changed Pema’s thinking about what he wanted to do in life.
“They (the doctors) were the ones piecing my family back together,” stated Pema.
In fact, it was this very experience that started him on his journey toward a medical degree at the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine, after distinguished undergraduate years including national-record-setting NCAA swimming performances, and fulfilling experience as an EMT. Through these formative years, he was able to comprehend the significance of this field and the influence that medical professionals can have on people’s lives.
“Patrick Pema is a promising new student here, and we look forward to his contributions as a member of our school’s latest cohort,” said Jeffrey Boscamp, MD, president and dean of the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine.
A GAP YEAR, AND A MAN NAMED BILL
Pema studied neuroscience at Emory starting in 2018. He embraced both the academics and extracurriculars of college; he joined the swim team and competed in Division 3. Everything went relatively smoothly in the pool and in class… until COVID-19 struck. Like so many other students, he only had one week to leave his dorm and find an apartment with some friends.
But there would be no swimming or in-person classes, due to pandemic precautions. So Pema decided upon a “gap year” – a year not officially on the Emory rolls.
“I’m, in a way, grateful. I was afraid to take a gap year because I was afraid I would lose momentum,” he said. “But it turned out to be the best choice I could have made.”
During this gap year, Pema worked and studied for the MCAT – and sought out valuable new experiences. He volunteered and learned about many parts of the medical field. He worked as an EMT for a local 911 doing 12-hour shifts before moving to other outlets, including a dialysis transportation outfit. His longest stint was with the Choice Men’s Health Clinic, which showed him another side to medicine when it came to dealing with erectile dysfunction. As he recalled, doling out test doses of medicine allowed patients to feel like their old selves again – and seeing the immediate improvement he helped oversee was a formative experience.
Another key lesson came from the flip side of the medical experience. Pema volunteered at a hospice near his hometown in Ohio. His role was simply to speak with residents, particularly those who did not have family visiting regularly. From there he linked up with a man named Bill. Bill, who had been a local bowling coach, had Stage-4 colon cancer and was told his condition was terminal, and simply a matter of time. But Bill still managed to attend an occasional practice of his team and remained determined and optimistic to the end, with the goal of living long enough to see his team compete in the state championship.
Bill didn’t make it to that milestone – but he taught Pema something.
“He taught me the capacity for hope,” said Pema. “And that can be everything.”
SWIMMING THROUGH IT
Pema worked hard otherwise throughout his gap year, not only studying for the MCAT but also swimming. When he returned to university in his junior year, his attitude shifted. He improved his mindset by not taking success for granted – and thus found a way to push himself to new athletic and academic heights.
“I took a lot of things for granted before,” Pema said.
Pema’s primary swimming events were 200 yards and 500 yards.
He won the team championship with his swimming team last year, which was the first time he was there. He also set the NCAA record in the free relay and this year broke another record in his best event, the 500-yard freestyle.
He was even voted the team’s Most Valuable Player last year.
PREPARATION FOR A CAREER
Pema also pushed himself on dry land. He began research work under Dr. Hyder Jinnah in September 2019, but the detailed looks into dystonia began in the spring when COVID-19 occurred and everyone went into lockdown.
Despite this, he found a way to chip in with the work.
“There was a big list of patients who were affected by Dystonia,” said Pema. “I would call them and ask them how they were feeling, how their condition was, how they felt about the progress with their disease, and more importantly how they felt about their care.”
The research is still underway, but Pema has moved on, since graduating from Emory in May 2023.
“I was introduced to many aspects of the research with neurology. Before that, I had done lots of shadowing, but it was different with the labs,” he said.
Just weeks into his career training at HMSOM, Pema is just starting to find his groove. He’s found value in switching gears from big-time swimming meets and undergraduate life to a different pace – and perhaps just as much pressure – as he plunges into a demanding medical school curriculum.
“The sense of working for the big goal is something I miss. Being in the pool every day. I would train 20 hours or more a week. It was nice with my team because we were working towards something bigger than ourselves.
“Training I do not miss, it was hard,” said Pema, chuckling. “I like that I can run for fun now and I enjoy weight lifting.”
Pema’s ultimate professional objective is to work to heal patients at a clinical level. He enjoyed research, but only in the sense that it showed him what was available.
“I like dealing with patients,” he said.“I like interacting with people. I would like to participate in research, but it is not something I envision myself doing as a career.”
Pema grew up in a rural part of Ohio, where the family had to drive a half-hour in virtually any direction to school, work, or shopping. Thus he spent a lot of time outdoors with his three siblings. Pema’s goal is to become the latest in the line of physicians from the family; his father is an otolaryngologist, and his mother is an end-of-life physician.
Pema’s aspirations are long-term, with possible specialties in surgery or neurology abounding. But there is a long road through medical school, he knows. This chapter will be long and challenging, but hopefully rewarding and fun. Pema sees long-term swimming goals that can be translated into long-term milestones of becoming a physician – and thus working as a life-saving healer in his own right.
This swim athlete from Ohio says his parents and siblings are his strongest supporters. He is the oldest of four children, with younger twins, a boy, and a girl, nearly 20 years old, and a younger brother, Josh – the baby whose mere birth inspired his career choice in the first place.
“I love my little brother. He’s the best kid, always so happy,” he said. “My parents and siblings have always been there for me, supporting me at every step. I want to be the best person I can be.”