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From Patient to Physician Assistant

Commencement weekend is an exciting time for any graduate -- the rewarding culmination of what can feel like a long and grueling journey. For Stefanie Sacknoff, who graduates from the Physician Assistant (PA) Program at GW’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences May 18, that journey has been more demanding than most.

Just days before graduation, Sacknoff finished up her final preceptorship at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., where she spent nearly a month working with Jennifer Willert, a pediatric stem cell transplant specialist. Sacknoff’s relationship with her preceptor was closer than most — Willert was one of her pediatric oncologists in San Diego just 11 years ago.

Sacknoff said that she feels at home working in the pediatric hematology/oncology unit, no doubt because she spent the majority of her childhood in and out of one. “My life was school and the hospital,” said Sacknoff, who was diagnosed with the blood disorder aplastic anemia when she was eight months old.

Aplastic anemia is a rare but serious condition in which bone marrow does not produce enough new red blood cells, white blood cells, or platelets. It can cause chronic fatigue, infections, bleeding, and other debilitating symptoms, and often requires patients to undergo a bone marrow transplant. Sacknoff was in need of a transplant by age eight, but there were no donor matches available in her family or the national registry.

Instead, Sacknoff depended on weekly blood transfusions throughout childhood and adolescence. She would schedule the transfusions around her classes and dance performances — her one extracurricular activity — so that she would have enough energy to function. “I was pretty well-adjusted because this was my normal,” Sacknoff said.

Even though she was never able to attend a full week of school because of her frequent hospital visits, Sacknoff managed to keep up with her work and graduate on time with her high school class in 2005. She enrolled at the University of San Diego that fall, where she began a degree in biochemistry with hopes of experiencing some of the independence that had eluded her throughout adolescence.

As it turned out, independence was still far off for Sacknoff. By her sophomore year, her disease had transformed into a type of myelodyspolastic syndrome (MDS), which can develop into leukemia. She was in desperate need of a bone marrow transplant by that point, when what Sacknoff calls “a miracle” occurred — a perfect match showed up in the national registry.

She took a year off from college in 2007 and underwent a bone marrow transplant that saved her life. “I feel completely normal now,” Sacknoff said. “When I look back on it, I realize how sick I really was. I had adapted so well that I didn’t realize what ‘normal’ felt like.”

Sacknoff said that some aspects of the transition to normalcy were more difficult than she expected. “I was so used to going to the hospital every week; they become like a second family,” she explains. “I don’t want to say that I missed the hospital, but it was a big part of my life that wasn’t there anymore.”

Since coming to GW in 2011, Sacknoff has committed herself to her studies so that she can fulfill her dream of working as a PA in pediatric hematology/oncology — a dream she’s had since a particularly difficult bout of illness at age eight caused the loss of her peripheral eyesight. “I had a lot of good experiences as a patient, but also a lot of bad ones,” Sacknoff said. “I would keep track of what I would do to change the system and to improve the patients’ experience. Sometimes they’re so focused on your disorder that quality of life gets lost in the shuffle. There are some people who don’t think kids have an opinion or know what’s going on. You’d be surprised how much eight- or nine-year-olds know about their disease.”

Sacknoff said she fell in love with Washington, D.C. while on a trip to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Johns Hopkins for clinical trials during middle school. She couldn’t apply to college in D.C. because she needed to stay close to home, but after her transplant she finally had the opportunity to come to the nation’s capital for graduate school.

The mission of GW’s PA program, which emphasizes the importance of patient advocacy, particularly resonated with Sacknoff because of her desire to provide support for her future patients. “It’s scary to me how many kids there are in these hospitals who don’t have advocates because of language barriers, broken homes, or socioeconomic troubles,” she said. “It’s something you really can’t do alone.”

Sacknoff said she feels blessed for the network of loved ones who have provided her support and encouragement throughout her life. She was especially excited that the same people who were present during her transplant — all 25 of them, including her bone marrow donor — were there to cheer her on at graduation.

“I’m so thankful for the people who believed in me to get to this point, because in all honesty I probably should not be alive today,” Sacknoff said. “I may be the one graduating, but I really feel like this has been a team effort.”

Debra Herrmann, M.P.H. ’01, P.A. ’01, assistant professor of physician assistant studies, describes Sacknoff — whose white coat she will put on at the upcoming PA White Coat Ceremony — as a conscientious student with a natural intellectual curiosity. “She asks wonderful clarifying questions that go beyond the basics of instruction, and starts to apply the knowledge quickly,” Herrmann said. “I know for sure that she is 100 percent committed to being that special provider that really does make a deep, effective connection with her patients. I’m excited that she’s going to have that opportunity, and I’m also excited for the patients and families who will have a resource like her.” 

As for post-graduation plans, Sacknoff hopes to return to San Diego to give back to the community that she credits with her survival. “My whole life was supported by the community, even strangers who donated blood for me on a weekly basis. They’re a huge factor in why I’ve been able to achieve this accomplishment.” She’ll also continue to work with her mother to support Perfect Match, the nonprofit organization they founded in 2010, which aims to register bone marrow donors during routine dental checkups at no cost.

Looking back, Herrmann recalls meeting Sacknoff for the first time during her applicant interview three years ago. “The mission of the program is that our students practice evidence-based medicine, that they advocate for their patients, and that they serve their communities and are leaders in the profession,” Herrmann said. “I really saw each and every one of those qualities in Stefanie, and I knew she was someone we needed to have here in this program.” This time, Sacknoff was the one who was the “perfect match.”