My PA Journey – Viviana Di Stefano

Viviana Di Stefano

Tell me a little bit about yourself

My name is Viviana. I am a non-traditional PA student who graduated in 2013 from West Chester University. In undergrad, the plan was to attend medical school until be becoming pregnant my senior year. I decided to work as a chemist while raising my son as a first time mom. I loved my job but it wasn’t what I wanted to do long term. My aunt is a PA-C and sparked my interest in the career. The more I looked into it, the more I realized that I didn’t want to go to medical school. The PA career offered more work-life balance, versatility and less specialty restrictions that are seen with NP and MD/DO. I decided to take a week vacation to shadow several PAs and ensure that this was truly what I wanted. Shadowing solidified the decision for me. I quit my job as a chemist, became a CNA at a hospital while completing my prerequisites.

I applied in the 2016 CASPA cycle and was accepted into the Class of 2019 at Salus University. To save money, I resumed working as a chemist before starting PA school in the Fall of 2017. While my son was in daycare, I noticed that he was constantly getting sick. After a serious of events, my son was diagnosed with pre-B cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) on February 2, 2017.

My life was shattered. I remember communicating this to the director of the PA program and expressing that I would like to still move forward with the Class of 2019, but they advised me to defer. After much reluctance, I agreed to the deferment and matriculated into the Class of 2020. One of the hardest things in life is achieving a dream such as getting into PA school and having to postpone that dream due to life’s complications. Looking back, this was the best decision I could have made. My son underwent intensive therapy for the first year of his diagnosis, our lives were chaos. He is currently in remission but undergoing treatment until April 6, 2020.

How are you balancing school with your son’s condition?

I have an amazing husband who has essentially taken on the role of a single father. We are an 1 hour and 30 minutes away from family, so my husband takes care of our son. He cooks, cleans, etc. I wouldn’t be here without him.

Both of our families are very supportive. He is Italian and I’m Colombian and Puerto Rican so we are very close knit. We call each other at least once a week and visit often. My son is still growing up in a family-is-everything-environment. Friends who have been with me reach out through social media as well. A lot of people have been present in my life since my son’s diagnosis. There is this village behind us. My classmates and faculty are also very understanding and helpful.

Some people try to make it look like things are perfect but that’s not true. We are all a mess and that’s the beauty. PA School is like asking what are your greatest fears? Then it puts them out there forcing you to face them. I’ve overcome so much and so many obstacles that I feel like I could do anything.

Viviana & Her Son, Vale

What are some of the struggles that you have had to overcome while in PA school?

I’m not a very secure person and deal with a lot of self-doubt. Being put on the spot shows who you are as a person and forces you out of your shell to become a better version of yourself. I worked remotely about 15hrs per work as a chemist during my first 2 months of PA school and did terribly in anatomy. I quit my job and still didn’t do well on the tests. I went to see somebody and discovered that I suffer from test anxiety.

I was placing so much pressure on myself to pass these test. “My family is counting on me”… “this will all be a waste” … “I’ll have failed my son”… these are the thoughts with each exam. I’d either be really anxious or so calm that I was oblivious to what was going on. By the end of the semester I found my rhythm. It’s still up and down but it took about 3 months to overcome my test anxiety. It’s a conscious effort.

I just finished my second semester and noticed that it presented different challenges. The first semester, I had overall test anxiety as mentioned previously. This past semester I noticed that the test anxiety was limited to one class, Clinical Medicine. My focus for next semester will be to keep improving my grades. Although, I did not make my goal GPA, 3.5, I am still proud that I was able to see improvement overall. I will keep striving for better. I also realize that it is okay if am not a straight A student if it means spending more time with my son. It is all about balance in PA school.

Di Stefano's unofficial transcripts

Tell me about your experience in PA school as a mom.

It’s been interesting. When I first started PA school, my son had just finished the intensive part of his treatment. Certain classes brought up subjects that I didn’t realize were still a sore spot for me. Like how leukemia presented in the eyes during our Ophthalmology lecture or discussing anaphylactic reaction in pharmacology, which I experienced on 3 separate occasions with my son. Reliving those moments, I would feel the tears running down my face. Then there is the challenge of keeping up with being a mom while in the program. I get so caught up in studying that at one point I went a week without spending time with my son. I felt like a horrible mother and broke down and cried. Now I know that I have to step away for an hour a day and just be with my son for my sanity. I’m the only mom in my class so there isn’t anyone to vent to about my experience that would understand. Thankfully my faculty is very supportive and I am so grateful for that.

In PA school I do find that a lot of us self-diagnose ourselves. I did that a lot with my son. At one point I diagnosed him with cystic fibrosis because I thought I saw a nasal polyp. I stopped using him as a surrogate patient because I was driving myself crazy.

PA school constantly throws you into high stress situations. One minute you are crying then the next you are panicking and then crying again. It makes you feel crazy. When you’re on break, you don’t even know how to interact with people anymore. It’s difficult to explain and you won’t understand until you get here.

Do you ever feel like quitting?

Oh yeah! My son is in the maintenance phase now so he is going every 4wks to clinic as opposed to once a week. He recently had labs that showed his white count was significantly low and on the way to the appointment, my husband caught a flat tire. In hindsight that wasn’t the end of the world but that day I thought “Oh man! Can’t I just catch a break?” Is this worth it? Can’t I just quit now? I have two weeks left until the end of the semester and I don’t want to do it.”

But those feelings haven’t happened as frequently this semester because I am taking better care of myself. Last semester I didn’t have a routine. My schedule was school, library and home. I was lonely and began to feel isolated from everybody. Every week I would break down about something, I felt like a bad mom, wife and student. This semester I’ve started working out more and it’s changing the way I see things. I’m running off my frustrations and becoming more productive. The thing that sucks most about PA school is everything else. If you’re just dealing with being a student than that’s one thing but you also have to juggle adulting and insurance and appointments and all of these other factors. It’s a lot and I sometimes ask why did i do this to myself? But then there are moments when a professor compliments me or my work is recognized, then it feels like I am meant to be here.

What would you say has been one of your biggest motivators?

My mom. Her and my dad divorced when I was young. She became a single mom of two kids working three jobs and eventually went back to school at age 31 to get her bachelors in food science. When she remarried, we moved to Minnesota where she now works as a Food Scientist for Land O’ Lakes. To see her work so hard while going to college and raising two kids is inspirational.

How is it being the only mom in your class?

I am the only mom, only Latina, and oldest female in my class. I feel like that puts another level of pressure on me. The PA profession is very Caucasian heavy, I feel like it’s part of my duty to represent that we can do this.

I’m a mother, wife and my son has leukemia but my grade averages are about the same as students who have less responsibilities, that makes me feel like I am doing a great job.

What does a typical day look like for you as a PA-S mom?

A day in the life -Viviana Di Stefano

FAQ

GPA: Cumulative – 3.41, Science – 3.32, Non science – 3.56

GRE – 153 verbal, 152 quantitative, analytical writing 3.5; Re-took the GRE while my son was in the hospital.

CASPA – Submitted 3x, the third time is when I took it seriously and made sure I met all of the requirements.

Undergrad – West Chester University with a B.S. in Chemistry and minor in Biology

If you could go back to the day that you decided to become a PA, what would you have told yourself?

Enjoy your life because you won’t have a life for the next 2 years. Take more vacations, spend more time with your family and get a tutor the first semester, don’t wait until you need one.

What is your advice to the hesitating mom?

There is ALWAYS a way! If you really want something, you’re going to have to fight harder to get it. Life is going to throw you so much crap but you will find a way. Sit down and really figure out who is in your circle.

Any other words of advice you have for the future PA-S moms?

Research and move to the school district ahead of time so you have time to set up and get acclimated. Also, figure out what your stress relief is early.

Be patient! You are allowed to have your moments and it is okay. There is no way to be perfect. You are going to go through issues. Be focused and present in the moment and aware of what is going on around you. There are always opportunities available, seize the moment. Don’t give up because you think it is impossible.

Finances – Look at your expenses and cut them where you can. I wanted a better school district so rent is a little higher. Be very organized about your money. Most expenses are covered by financial aid but stick to your budget. Be smart about your money and find the most cost effective options. It is okay to be in debt, we live in a debt society.

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