‘I’m looking forward to … everything’: Amid COVID-19, Richmond native ready to help patients

Bonds with mentors and classmates have helped prepare new family medicine physician Danielle Austen as she and her fellow medical school graduates step “into a very real situation.”

A VCU medical student inside of a classroom. [View Image] Richmond native and VCU graduate Danielle Austen will head west this summer to begin her family medicine residency at the University of California San Diego Medical Center. (Wei-Li Suen)

COVID-19 transformed the final months of medical school for Danielle Austen and her classmates at Virginia Commonwealth University. They marked the end of their journey with virtual celebrations for Match Day and graduation, Zoom goodbyes with friends and faculty, and an online version of the capstone course that’s designed to bridge the gap between medical school and residency.

Yet the pandemic couldn’t alter Austen’s enthusiasm for the next phase of her medical training. The Richmond native is heading west to begin her family medicine residency at the University of California San Diego Medical Center.

“I’m looking forward to … everything,” she said with a laugh.

Her love of science began as a child; later, her enrollment in the Health Science Specialty Center at Midlothian’s Cosby High School sealed her path to medicine. Cosby is one of the Richmond-area schools in the VCU Division for Health Sciences Diversity Health Sciences Academy. Students who participate in the program receive dual enrollment college credit, college preparedness skills and opportunities for health career exploration.

“We would come to campus and spend time shadowing health care workers,” said Austen, the first physician in her family. “We had a lot of opportunities to interact with people in various health professions and learn about their jobs. That program is what influenced me to go to medical school, in particular.”

She decided to complete her undergraduate studies at VCU, earning dual degrees in biology and political science from the College of Humanities and Sciences. Accepted to the VCU Honors College, she participated in the VCU Acceleration program, starting the summer after her high school graduation. It combined a pre-matriculation summer session and yearlong program for freshmen interested in pre-health concentrations.

They are stepping into a very real situation where they will be called on to take care of patients who have COVID. It highlights their need to be ready for residency on day one.

The program’s shadowing experiences, including one with Herbert King, M.D., a family physician and VCU School of Medicine graduate, led Austen to discover her passion for family medicine and ultimately apply to the School of Medicine’s Family Medicine Scholars Training and Admission Track. The program nurtures and supports medical students who are committed to the pursuit of a career in family medicine.

“I was 85 percent sure I wanted to go into family medicine when I started medical school,” Austen said. “Within two days of my third-year family medicine rotation, I was 100 percent sure. The closeness between the doctors and their patients was something I hadn’t experienced on any other rotation.”

She also found a closeness among her fellow classmates. “Being around people interested in the same field, who you feel are like you and who get you, was important to me.” Even though they couldn’t complete the final capstone course in person, Austen appreciated the opportunity to participate together online, especially in the specialty specific boot camps.

“It was everyone who matched into family medicine,” she said. “We got to say goodbye one last time. It was sentimental.”

Michael Ryan, M.D., assistant dean for clinical medical education, organizes the capstone course and worked with faculty to move instruction online.

“It was impressive to see how different specialties rose to the occasion,” he said. “Surgery’s Susan Haynes, [surgical simulation administrator], went above and beyond to personally mail suture kits to each student so they could practice that particular skill at home.”

Ensuring the capstone course’s online success felt more significant, Ryan said, because the students would soon be on the front lines fighting the pandemic.

“They are stepping into a very real situation where they will be called on to take care of patients who have COVID,” said Ryan, also an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics. “It highlights their need to be ready for residency on day one.” Two adults and a child at a restaurant. [View Image]
Danielle Austen, right, and her stepmother enjoy a tea party with Austen’s daughter, Fariah. (Courtesy photo)

For Austen, the pandemic caused her to reconsider moving her family to California. Instead, her husband, Andrew, and 4-year-old daughter, Fariah, will stay in Richmond during her intern year.

“Once the COVID pandemic really got serious, I just didn’t feel right bringing them with me,” Austen said. “It is really tough but it brings me a sense of relief because my extended family is here in Richmond and they were a huge support network through medical school.”

Multiple scholarships — including the R. Randolph Duffer M.D. Family Practice Endowed Scholarship and the Theresa A. Thomas Health Professional Scholarship — helped ease Austen’s financial burden during medical school. She is the first recipient of the Duffer Scholarship, created by a Class of 1972 family physician to support students committed to family medicine.

“When I am finally in practice, in a beautiful rural community, I hope I can pay it forward to the next family medicine-bound medical student who hopes to work in that setting,” Austen said. “Dr. Duffer has demonstrated what it means to live a life of service and how to help the next generation of physicians with his heart and motives. He is living the dream, and I only hope that one day I can achieve that, too.”

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