MC grad returns to Midland as part of medical school training

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MC grad returns to Midland as part of medical school trainingSeptember 14, 2021

The image to use for this article. Listing image managed through RSS tab. Clarence Sparks with his mother after “White Coat” ceremony, which signifies the beginning of medical school.

“Sometimes I think this is just too good to be true!” Clarence Sparks exclaimed.  “I started Midland College’s Primary Care Pathway Program in the fall of 2016, and just seven years later—by fall 2023—I’ll be finished with medical school.  The faculty at both Midland College and TCOM [Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine] have been super supportive.  I continue to be overwhelmed by the generosity of both institutions.”

Sparks is a member of Midland College’s (MC) first cohort of Primary Care Pathway students and is now in his third year of medical school at TCOM.  As such, he is performing clinical rotations with physicians at Midland Health.  Since Sparks entered the program in 2016, MC has helped five groups of students start the path to becoming a physician.

MC Associate Professor of Biology Joseph Schenkman serves as coordinator of the Primary Care Pathway Program.  He explained that the purpose of the program is to increase the number of physicians practicing primary care in the Midland area and in the state of Texas. 

The program contains the following components: (1) An enhanced three-year premed curriculum with two years at MC and one year at the University of North Texas (UNT); (2) Healthcare enrichment activities that include mentoring and physician shadowing; (3) A summer enrichment experience. 

To be eligible for MC’s Primary Care Pathway Program, high school graduates must have competitive college entrance exam scores and be U.S. citizens or permanent residents with Texas residency.  Dual credit coursework may be accepted at the discretion of the program committee.  

The average GPA for program participants graduating from MC is 3.8, and the average GPA for program students at UNT is 3.9.

Schenkman said that students who successfully complete all of the requirements in the prescribed timeframe while maintaining at least a 3.5 GPA may be granted an interview that can lead to an offer of early acceptance admission to TCOM.  Additionally, by attaining only A’s and B’s, while maintaining the 3.5 GPA, the submission of an MCAT score will be waived.  Such was the case with Sparks.

“When I graduated from Midland High School in 2001, I really didn’t want anything to do with medicine,” Sparks explained.  “I’m not sure what changed my mind, but I eventually got trained to be a medical assistant and went to work for what was then Premier Family Care in Midland.  There were only a couple of doctors there at the time, and I pretty much did whatever they asked in the way of patient care and office management.  When one of the doctors, Dr. Prizada, moved his practice to the Houston area, he asked me to go with him to help set up the office.  That gave me a unique perspective in how doctors’ offices are run.”

By 2015, Sparks had moved back to Midland and was once again working as a medical assistant for Premier Family Care.  

“I decided that I wanted to make the healthcare profession into a career, so I enrolled in nursing prerequisite courses at Midland College,” Sparks said.  “In the summer semester, Mr. Schenkman came into my Anatomy & Physiology class and told us about the Primary Care Pathway Program.  I had never really considered being a doctor, but I thought, ‘Why not.  I can’t pass up an opportunity like this.’”

Sparks continued to work as a medical assistant during the first year in the program. 

“The physicians were incredibly accommodating of my school schedule,” he said.  “However,  the ‘schedule juggling’ was hard for them, as well as me, so during my second year I quit the full-time job and started working part-time as a tutor at MC.  By that time, I was receiving Midland College scholarships, which gave me a chance to really concentrate on my studies.  By December of 2017, I had already been accepted into TCOM, even though I had another 18 months to finish undergraduate school—finish the year at MC and then a year at UNT.  That’s one of the reasons this program is so great.  Those students who maintain high grades are given a chance to interview for medical school before graduating from Midland College, and the MCAT [medical school entrance exam] is waived.  Like I said, it’s almost too good to be true!”

After graduating from MC in 2018, Sparks spent a year at UNT completing his undergraduate work and then entered TCOM in Ft. Worth.  He spent two years at TCOM, and in June, he moved back to Midland for two years of medical school clinical rotations.

“Currently, I’m doing rotations in internal medicine,” Sparks said.  “I really think that family medicine or internal medicine are the routes I want to take.  I like helping the underserved—whether it’s rural or inner city.  When I was at TCOM, I chaired the Student Government Association’s homeless clinic, and it was a great experience.  Of course, the good thing about clinical rotations is that we get to experience all areas of healthcare before we enter a residency program, so I’m keeping my options open.”

Sparks also said that during his fourth year in medical school, he hopes to be able to do some clinical rotations in rural West Texas communities, and he is interested in international clinical experiences.

“I was fortunate enough while I was at MC to be able to travel to Haiti with MC Biology Professor Amelia Belizaire and her husband who is a physician,” Sparks explained.  “That’s one of the great things about Midland College—the experiences outside of the classroom that are offered to students.  In addition to the trip to Haiti, I traveled to Honduras as part of an interdisciplinary team performing research on coral reefs off the coast of Roatan, Honduras.”

Sparks said that he really enjoys osteopathic medicine because of its wholistic approach to medicine.  He has also been trained in osteopathic manipulation therapy (OMT), which includes hands-on techniques used to diagnose, treat and prevent illness or injury. Using OMT, a doctor moves a patient’s muscles and joints employing techniques that include stretching, gentle pressure and resistance.  As part of his education at TCOM, Sparks has received special training in the musculoskeletal system, which provided additional knowledge of how the body’s systems are interconnected and how each one affects the others.

“Of course, osteopathic physicians are also trained in other aspects of medicine, and are specialists in such things as surgery, cardiology, pediatrics, etc.,” Sparks explained.  “However, when appropriate, OMT can complement, and even replace, other treatment options.  Osteopathic medicine focuses on the patient as a whole—not just treating symptoms.”

Sparks is excited to be back in Midland, where he grew up since age 7.  He hopes to be able to stay in Midland while he is doing his residency.  He admits medical school is hard work but said that at the end of the day, it’s worth it, and he is well on his way to a promising career as a physician.  He recently successfully completed both the American Medical Association’s Step 1 exam and the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Exam (COMLEX).  Both of the exams were the first in a series of three exams that medical students take during medical school and first year of residency.  To relieve studying and medical school stress, Sparks enjoys reading and cycling.

“Clarence is a rare breed,” Professor Schenkman said.  “He is altruistic in the truest sense with a real aptitude for success in the medical field. Clarence has already accomplished so much during his time as a member of the Primary Care Pathway Program, and we can’t wait to see what great successes are in store for Clarence as he progresses through his journey in achieving his ‘DReam.’”

Sparks said that he would advise students interested in becoming physicians to look into MC’s Primary Care Pathway Program, especially if they are first-generation college students, like he is.

“The professors and staff at MC helped me navigate the system and gave me direction,” Sparks said.  “Midland College really prepared me for medical school.  The classes are small, and the professors are personable.  I was able to take advantage of scholarships at Midland College, and there was also a stipend available when I transferred to UNT.  In addition, TCOM is very affordable, compared to other medical schools.

“I started the program a little later than most students.  I’m 38; by the time I graduate from medical school, I’ll be 40.  But that’s OK; I’m going to be 40 no matter what.  I may as well be 40 and starting my medical career.  I’m very thankful to have this opportunity.”

 

Photo:  Clarence Sparks with his mother after “White Coat” ceremony, which signifies the beginning of medical school.

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