words by Maryann Brinley / photograph by Pete Byron
hen the head coach of the University of Maryland’s nationally ranked fastpitch softball team decided to go back to school to become a physician assistant after 20 years of successful coaching, some friends didn’t understand. Though her family was supportive, Gina LaMandre found herself facing questions like: Are you crazy? Are you sure? Why would you want to do this?
“Coaching had become second nature to me,” admits this third year student in the SHRP physician assistant program. “I was comfortable. I felt good about what I had done there, starting the softball program from nothing. I helped get a three and a half million dollar stadium built. And of course the best part was working with the athletes. Fastpitch softball had become huge. Even the ratings for the college series on ESPN were phenomenal.”
LaMandre had guided her Maryland Terrapins to record-setting seasons, capturing conference titles and earning several Coach of the Year spots for herself. For those 11 seasons on the field, her teams compiled an overall record of 338 wins, 263 losses. And as an undergraduate player at Trenton State (now College of New Jersey) in the 80s, she was twice named an All-American pitcher. But “I wasn’t getting any younger,” she explains, and she had always been interested in fitness, having earned her master’s degree in exercise physiology when she was an assistant coach at the University of Massachusetts. LaMandre wanted something more from her career.
Coaching women’s softball full time with its highs and lows can be an emotional undertaking. “Girls screaming on the field? And chanting! Oh yes. I’ll be honest with you, it drove me crazy sometimes but I enjoyed the intensity of the competition.” She believes that to be successful as a coach at the college level requires good listening skills — an ability she is now using with patients on her clinical rotations.
It was hard to quit back in 2005. There was never going to be a perfect time to announce that she was leaving her team. “Each year, I’d be saying, one more year, let me graduate one more group of girls. You get attached to every one of your players and want to see them all through four years before saying goodbye.”
But LaMandre had also been doing homework before this career move. “I didn’t do this overnight.” In fact, she had been taking and retaking pre-requisite science classes for years. Though she had been a science major, she needed to refresh areas like anatomy and chemistry, for instance. She also spent time with practicing PAs, something she would recommend to anyone else considering a change in professional direction. The head coach of the Florida State softball team linked her up with someone who allowed her to shadow him in his practice. And a PA who specializes in trauma and orthopedics also gave her personal experience watching him deal with patients. “This will give you valuable insight.”
Applying to three programs, she chose UMDNJ but the reality of going back to a structured school environment was difficult. Her third semester was among the most challenging. “I had been pretty active physically. In coaching, you don’t do a lot of sitting.” There she was, taking 24 credits, locked into long lectures, sitting all day. “What a significant change that was from my past life.”
Now a third year student, LaMandre is out and all over the state rotating through various hospitals and medical practices. “Medicine was two months. Surgery was two months. I’m in obstetrics now which is six weeks at St. Peter’s Hospital. This is probably not the best specialty for me,” she has decided. In practice, PAs generally function under the supervision of a physician but do everything from taking medical histories, examining patients, performing physicals, interpreting laboratory tests and scans, diagnosing, educating patients, prescribing medication and even conducting hospital rounds. LaMandre thinks she might be interested in the operating room or emergency medicine but won’t know until she goes on those rotations later this year. She still has six weeks in pediatrics, four in emergency medicine and will be in two different doctors’ offices for her ambulatory experience before ending up in the intensive care unit at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center.
“A tough program,” she reflects. “Some of it seems like a blur but I’ll graduate in May 2008.” At age 44, “I’m one of the oldest in the class but we all help one another out.” Even on those occasions when she’s frustrated learning something new, feeling uncomfortable, saying to herself, ‘What did I do?’ or ‘I’m awful at this!’ she still dismisses any notion of her career switch being a mistake. “Absolutely not. I’d recommend it.” As for coaching? Well, she’ll never give that up. On her only summer break from the SHRP three year commitment, she actually squeezed in a season as head coach for the Philadelphia Force, a professional team. She also helps her alma mater, the College of New Jersey, with clinics. “Coaching is something I’ll always want to do.”
LaMandre believes that to be successful in any medical field and a good clinician will take attention to detail, a strong work ethic and the ability to be empathetic. At Trenton State, the team used to have a rubber chicken named Helen. “If you made a mental mistake on the field, you got to carry Helen around campus,” she laughs. LaMandre claims to have carried Helen more than her share for not thinking clearly but somehow, that’s hard to imagine. This decision to go into medicine certainly doesn’t call for a chicken.