My Kind of Medicine: Real Lives of Practicing Internists: Erica Scavella, MD, FACP
The Test Taker
At the Lower School of University of Chicago Laboratory Schools in Chicago, IL, Erica Scavella liked science class the most. Her love for it followed her to New Jersey where she chose pre-med at Rutgers University, and later to the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey - Robert Wood Johnson Medical School where she fell in love with internal medicine. “Figuring out the cases was exciting,” she remembers, “and I liked how broad and different the opportunities were for patient care.” Today at 38, Dr. Scavella has a career any young woman would covet—she is a practicing physician at the VA Medical System in Maryland, a medical director at one of the VA community-based primary care clinics, and an ACP Fellow—a distinction she earned at the age of 35. But it hasn’t been an entirely easy ride—she struggled with test-taking for years, all the way through medical school. Eventually she learned what worked for her—charts, graphs and tables. Yet while these difficulties made life as a medical student a challenge, it also made the experience of earning her fellowship all the more meaningful. She says becoming a Fellow gave her not only external validation, but internal validation as well. “It was important to me,” she says. “I worked hard to get it and I did it.”
When Dr. Scavella and her college sweetheart and husband Darryl, also an internist, aren’t working, they can be found doing something active—running, biking, skiing, or camping. “We love physical activity in general,” she says. They also volunteer for the Boy Scout Troop that their sons, Darryl Justus, 11, and Jordan Grant, 10 belong to. The patients at the VA clinic where Dr. Scavella spends about half of her time keep her equally busy and happy. “I like the day-to-day interactions and meeting new people,” she says. “The veterans are a great group to learn from and they are grateful for the care received…I find the interactions I have with them extremely rewarding. They are the reason I love this job.” She says that being an internist allows her the flexibility to spend time with family and to also pursue other professional interests, including educational and administrative programs that she attends across the country. She also works in an administrative role in a more permanent setting, for the VA Maryland Health Care System, working to improve quality and performance.
She loves how the job allows her to work with other professionals, such as nurses and social workers, to improve quality. She is excited and animated when discussing it and it is clear that she puts her heart into it. “It’s exciting to come up with action plans, help roll them out, and see them work,” she says. One example she cites is the group’s success improving the access to care. Dr. Scavella and her team examined the entire enrollment process, broke it down into small pieces, identified specific areas of wasted time, and created ways to eliminate waste. “I feel passionate about finding more effective ways to deliver care,” she says. “I think that the solution to many problems lies in the ability to put yourself in the patient’s place. Oftentimes we’re not thinking the way a patient thinks.”
And her work as a medical director at the Glen Burnie VA Community-Based Outpatient Clinic has given her valuable insight to management and problem solving. “Working with other primary care physicians and specialists is a wonderful experience,” she says. All in all, Dr. Scavella’s different roles provide her with the stimulation and excitement she craves. “Internal medicine is a great field—students should consider it in terms of the marketability it gives you in your career. My career is a perfect example of how interesting and varied a job you can have every day as an internist.”
The Weekly Gift
Dr. Scavella once told a colleague at the VA Medical Center that each week, she looks forward to what she knows will be a unique patient experience. “At least once a week I meet a patient who is like a gift to me,” she says. She talks of one patient in particular, an elderly African American man, about six-foot-four, with a long goatee and light grey eyes. He would often entertain her with his military stories, and over the years, the two shared many laughs. “There was something magical about him,” she recalls. He had one request for her: “He said to me, ‘I want you to do something for me. I want you to get me to 100,’” she recalls, “and I said ‘no problem!’ It was relatively easy since he was in pretty good health, but we did do a lot for him to prevent him growing sicker whenever he was ill.” After ten years of treating the man, Dr. Scavella finally delivered on her promise, and the patient celebrated his 100th birthday in good health. She continued to treat him until he passed away recently at the age of 101.
Check out previous articles as physicians share what motivated them to become physicians as well as why they chose their particular type of practice.
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