Both Bethany and Thad Pajak felt more than prepared for medical school by their educational experiences at Saint Vincent College.
“From a technical standpoint, Saint Vincent physiology was more difficult than medical school physiology,” said Thad, a 2007 graduate of the biology program who earned a doctor of osteopathy degree from Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine.
“We had seen the material from a medical school level; it was review,” he said, crediting program director Dr. James Barnett for setting a high standard. “The hardest thing I ever did was to take his classes. Someone who puts you through that challenge, you never forget.”
Thad Pajak is now an active-duty soldier and family physician in his final year of residency at Martin Army Community Hospital in Columbus, Ga.
“There was a whole dynamic there that prepared me, especially as a family doctor, to look at the big picture,” he said, explaining that his patients are complex people who may have medical problems that are complicated by family, situational or cultural issues. “We really thought about the whole person. Knowing about philosophy and religion and people’s cultures has made a big difference.”
Thad Pajak not the only doctor in the family: At Saint Vincent, he met his wife, then Bethany Evans, also a biology major and 2007 graduate who subsequently earned her DO at the Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine.
Bethany Pajak is in general practice in occupational medicine, caring for work-related injuries.
She shares her husband’s enthusiasm for the academic challenge Saint Vincent offers: “Saint Vincent provided me with a very strong foundation in the natural sciences. I felt very prepared for the type and amount work medical school demanded.”
Even today, she recollects her classes as she works. “As a practicing physician, I still find myself recalling my core knowledge base, which in particular the biology professors instilled in me. Whether listening to a patient’s heart, or writing a prescription – I can still hear the voices of those professors and it seems like just yesterday I was sitting in class.”
Both have fond memories of classes with professors outside their major.
Bethany said chemistry professor Dr. Matthew Fisher, who knew of her desire to provide medical care to those most in need, gave her a book, “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” tracing the story of a Harvard-trained physician, Dr. Paul Farmer, who created a foundation to better serve patients in Third-World countries with modern medicine.
“Dr. Farmer became an idol of sorts. His work was the fire that kept me focused during the four long years of medical school,” she said, adding that three years and several medical mission trips after receiving the book as a gift, she had the pleasure of meeting Farmer in person. “It was an unforgettable experience and a reaffirmation of career choice. I even had him sign my white coat. I owe it all to Dr. Fisher!”
While he was a biology major, Thad “minored in cross country,” and counts his coach Dr. Andrew Herr as an influential mentor in many areas of life outside the classroom. He also particularly remembers taking Environmental Ethics with Dr. Gene Torisky, who set “an expectation that you had read the material and come prepared to engage in the conversation.” For the final oral exam, the professor made a pot of coffee and held a two-hour dialogue on the material, “not as professor and student but colleague to colleague,” an experience he considers rare for undergraduates.
Both took part in service trips with Campus Ministry. “Some may say Saint Vincent is a small college, but I was able to see the world,” Bethany said. Thad added that after he completes his military service, they’d like to return to the area and invite SVC students to join in medical mission trips with them.
The couple have chosen to give back to SVC, in particular supporting athletics. “Saint Vincent is really a place where academics and athletics can sculpt you into a well-rounded individual without feeling like you are giving up a true passion,” Bethany said.
Campus activities were also important: “I came in with a fairly average skill set, but I was able to get involved in so many activities at Saint Vincent that made me a dynamic person,” Thad said. “It really became a launching pad.”
Both would recommend their alma mater to current high-school students, though Thad added a warning: “It does take a certain kind of person, to understand there is never going to be an easy class. It’s for people who are up for a challenge … not for the faint of heart.”