Now employed at Hermitage Family Medicine as medical assistants, neither Leah Smith nor Alex Hlumyk originally planned to pursue medical careers — at least not until they discovered the Hope Center for Arts and Technology.
In the summer of 2018, Smith was trying out a new hobby – photography – and thought HopeCAT School on Sharon’s West Hill might make an interesting backdrop.
But instead of taking pictures, Smith found herself talking with HopeCAT executive director Tom Roberts about the center’s physician assistant program. After toying with the idea for about a year, Smith successfully applied to the program just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“I thought it was actually quite interesting,” she said. “It focused on a lot of things important to becoming a physician assistant, the small classes made it easy to have one-on-one time with the teacher, and it felt like the girls were really, really supporting each other.
Hlumyk also found out about HopeCAT’s Physician Assistant program in 2018. At the time, Hlumyk was working part-time at convenience store GetGo and saw a flyer for the program. At the same time, his mother discovered the program through the Internet.
“I knew it was an opportunity not many people had, so I should take advantage of it,” Hlumyk said.
The 10-month program, offered at HopeCAT in Sharon, trains students to become certified medical assistants. Nine of the 10 months are spent in the classroom, with the last month spent at a local day school, Roberts said.
Classes run from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, with HopeCAT providing students with everything from scrubs to textbooks. However, even though the program is offered for free, Roberts said the program “is not free”.
“It’s a significant time commitment. Sometimes people tell us they want to sign up, but the time isn’t right right now,” Roberts said. “But we also have a lot of working moms and people juggling different jobs, and they’re doing well.”
Over 40 people have completed the program, with an 80% graduation rate. Of the 80% who graduate, 90% are immediately placed in a job.
All graduates complete their National Healthcare Association certifications, Roberts said.
For those who think the Physician Assistant program may be over-committing, HopeCAT also offers a shorter 20-week program that trains students to become phlebotomists, a profession that involves drawing blood for testing. Phlebotomy program classes are held from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. four days a week.
But whether students choose to become medical assistants or phlebotomists, Roberts said HopeCAT graduates have a “stackable credential,” allowing them to earn a living wage or further their medical careers if they choose.
“If you want to go to nursing school, you have Thiel, BC3, Youngstown State University, UPMC, Sharon Regional,” Roberts said. “You haven’t driven 20 minutes and there are RN programs all around us.”
Smith said her education in the HopeCAT Physician Assistant program was contrasted by her time working night shifts at a local group home – work that could range from 80 hours every two weeks to 120 hours.
Although managing the two commitments is sometimes tiring and overtime sometimes conflicts with her classes at HopeCAT, Smith said she and her classmates always support each other.
“I was lucky to have a group of girls who, if anything ever happened, they wouldn’t let anyone get behind,” Smith said. “We even had our own personal group via Snapchat to let us know what was going on.”
Hlumyk also juggled her classes at HopeCAT and her job at GetGo, but also said the students were always ready to fight for each other — sometimes literally.
Part of students’ hands-on education in HopeCAT’s school building, which includes an “examination room” with necessary equipment, involved drawing blood from their classmates, which Hlumyk says helped preparing students to draw blood from patients.
“It was a little weird, but it was good because we needed that experience,” Hlumyk said.
Hlumyk graduated in June 2019 and went to work at Primary Health Pediatrics, where he completed his externship. Hlumyk then worked in an office in New Castle and eventually ended up at Steward Primary Care in Hermitage.
Smith graduated last June, with a graduation ceremony that included some of the students from the Class of 2020 whose ceremony was postponed due to COVID-19. Like Hlumyk, Smith was hired at the location of her day school — Steward Primary Care at Hermitage, where she works with fellow HopeCAT graduates Hlumyk and Michael Haynes.
Hlumyk has since been living in his own apartment since November 2019 and enjoys more regular hours and an improved salary compared to Get-Go. These allow him to take advantage of time off on weekends and public holidays, and he can afford sporting events or the occasional concert.
Although he was unsure of his plans for the future, Hlumyk said he enjoys his current job and encouraged others interested in the medical field to consider HopeCAT’s program.
“Everyone there, from janitors to students to Tom (Roberts), wants to see you succeed,” Hlumyk said.
Smith, who plans to become a registered nurse in the next few years, also encouraged other prospective students to attend classes as often as possible despite the challenges that could come from dividing time between multiple jobs and family commitments.
HopeCAT staff are always accommodating, she said, including allowing students to use the facilities to practice their skills or spend extra time there, but completing the program is also rewarding on a personal level.
“I think the biggest change for me was having a career instead of just a job,” she said. “And being able to help patients or listen to what they’ve been through – they always tell me I’m a big help.”
Students who wish to apply for the Physician Assistant program can visit hopecat.org. Enrollment for the next cohort of students is expected to open after Jan. 1, Roberts said.
There is currently no start date for the next cohort of the phlebotomy program, but Roberts said physician assistants and phlebotomists continue to be the two most in-demand jobs in the medical field.
“When our students graduate, they come out with an in-demand skill set,” Roberts said.
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