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Putting patients first

Karissa Hodges is graduating from the Keck School of Medicine of USC
Karissa Hodges is graduating with a master's from the Primary Care Physician Assistant program at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. (Photo/Dietmar Quistorf)

As a child, Karissa Hodges liked to play doctor. But she didn’t use toys; she used real stethoscopes, blood-pressure pumps and other common medical instruments that she got from physicians and nurses at the USC Norris Cancer Hospital.

In the room next door, her mother was receiving radiation treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma. The experience could have been frightening and confusing, but staff members at the Norris Cancer Hospital made Hodges feel like she and her mother were in safe hands.

Fast forward to today: Hodges is graduating with a master’s from the Primary Care Physician Assistant program at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. While childhood memories of accompanying her mother to the cancer hospital are, at times, hazy, she is certain the experience led to her becoming a medical professional.

“Now studying neurology and knowing how the brain works, I think you encode those things and really do process them when you are a kid,” Hodges said. “To me, the hospital wasn’t scary. It was this great place with these amazing people who took care of my mom. Everyone was so nice. It gets encoded in there that this is such a friendly profession.”

Every day for six weeks, as her mother underwent 45 minutes of radiation therapy, Hodges was left in the care of the cancer hospital staff. She even accompanied her mother on follow-up appointments.

Lenore Hodges fully recovered from Hodgkin lymphoma and a subsequent bout of breast cancer. And on her one-year anniversary in remission, the cancer hospital staff threw her a party. When the staffers found out it also was Karissa’s birthday month, they turned the party into an impromptu birthday celebration.

“I definitely think that it helped shape my view later in life,” Hodges said. “I wanted to be there for someone like they were for me and my mom.”

Hodges also took away an appreciation for USC and made the Keck School her top choice for her master’s education. She especially liked the idea of the school’s three-year physician assistant program, seeing the extra year as a way to better prepare herself for the medical world. Rather than pursuing a career as a doctor, she chose to become a physician assistant because she wanted to have more of a personal life away from work and, more importantly, have more time to spend with patients.

“As a physician assistant, I can make a difference and help to improve lives just as the medical team did for my mother,” Hodges said. “Physician assistants generally have more patient encounters and time with patients. I really like that aspect of getting to be with the patients more.”

At USC, Hodges served as a volunteer for the Keck Student Run Community Clinic and at health fairs to provide free screenings for residents in the neighborhood. After completing her advanced rotation at the Fullerton Neurology and Headache Center, she decided that she wanted to go into pediatric neurology.

Following graduation, Hodges plans to take three weeks to study for the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam. She hopes one day to land a job in Southern California doing for others what the cancer hospital did for her and her mother.

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