Heritage College, Cleveland’s first graduates recall pulling each other through med school

May 11, 2019

The Heritage College, Cleveland, class of 2019.

Pride in a new state-of-the-art medical education campus and in all the work done to give it a student culture of its own. A sense of making a bit of history. Appreciation for the friendship and mutual support shared by a small band of pioneering classmates. Gratitude for the chance to be trained in – and give back to – northeast Ohio.

These were among the feelings expressed by members of the class of 2019 from the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine at Cleveland, as they looked back on four years of undergraduate medical training and prepared to join fellow graduates from the college’s Dublin and Athens campuses at the May 11 Commencement ceremony in Athens.  

Last year, the Heritage College, Dublin, saw its first graduating class receive their D.O. degrees. This year, it’s the Cleveland campus’s turn to send its first osteopathic physicians into the world.

“Honestly, it feels good to be part of this pioneering class,” said class member Jay Sarma, Ph.D. “It feels great.”

Originally from India, Sarma – who taught mechanical engineering at the University of Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio, before enrolling in medical school – makes his home in the small city of Canfield near Youngstown. Like almost 42 percent of his Cleveland graduating class, he’s pursuing a primary care specialty. And like almost 49 percent of them, he will stay in northeast Ohio for his residency, which will be in internal medicine at Mercy Health St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital.

“Hopefully, I’ll be working in the area as well,” Sarma said. “The Cleveland campus is focused on northeast Ohio, and that’s where I want to be.”

Training doctors in and for the region

The Heritage College opened its Cleveland campus at Cleveland Clinic South Pointe Hospital in July 2015 in affiliation with Cleveland Clinic out of a shared desire to train more primary care physicians to practice in northeast Ohio. If the class of ’19 is any indication, the effort looks promising.

“I’m a resident of Euclid, so for me it was a no-brainer to go to the Cleveland campus when I knew it was opening,” recalled Marian Zgodinski. Matched to a psychiatry residency with Cleveland’s MetroHealth System, she’ll be staying in the area for at least the next four years, “and probably forever, to be honest… My family’s here, a lot of my high school friends are here, and I’ve kind of realized that Cleveland is the area that I want to serve.”

Sandusky native Tim Cutler will be doing his family medicine residency at Firelands Regional Medical Center in his hometown. “I’m excited to care for patients in my community, and I’ll get to be home near my family,” he said. “I think that makes me a better professional because they encourage me and are my support system.”

An ‘amazing’ high-tech campus

When the inaugural Cleveland class first toured the campus, they saw a site still under construction, which would eventually become a state-of-the-art, high-tech learning facility.

“I still remember walking into the building before it was finished,” recalled Michelle Sergi, who comes from the tiny town of Lowellville near Youngstown and “definitely” plans to practice in the area after finishing a combined pediatrics/genetics residency at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland. “There were my classmates around me, all of us in awe at the whole experience, but also kind of nervous, wondering – Is this place going to be done by the time we start?”

Class members agree that the finished product met – and even exceeded – their expectations, with its telecommunication technology keeping the campus seamlessly connected to its sister sites in Dublin and Athens and its faculty and staff providing solid support for students.

“Of the nine medical schools that I interviewed at, Heritage College, Cleveland, is, hands down, the nicest campus I’ve ever seen,” said Cory Gotowka, who will be entering a residency in pediatrics at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus. “Our facilities were amazing.”

Students supported by staff – and by one another

Likewise, the support for the students.

“I think we got to know all of the faculty and staff really well,” Cutler said. “And they really made us feel that we were their first priority.”

Just as valued was the support class members gave each other; more than one cited this as crucial to making it through their medical school training.

“We were very close-knit and got along with each other really well from the beginning,” Zgodinski said. “I was able to ask other students for tutoring sessions or study groups. We really banded together to make it work for everyone, so that everyone could succeed.”

“From the moment we stepped on that campus, we were instantly close to one another,” Sergi agreed. “We all just stuck together and pushed each other and helped each other study. I think the strength of our class helped us all get through our four years of medical school.”

Giving the campus a personality

In addition to their studies, the inaugural class stepped up to the challenge of creating a campus culture, which included launching clubs and community activities.

Sergi – whose extracurricular efforts include holding an annual benefit that’s raised over $180,000 toward establishing a pediatric palliative care program in the Mahoning Valley – said she’s proud of the many Cleveland campus student organizations her class started in between their academic duties.

“During our first year, we worked hard not only on school work, but to make sure that organizations within the school system were in place, such as the pediatrics club, the dermatology club or the family medicine club – there were so many ways to be involved,” she said. “We all took initiative to make it into something that can be carried on.”

What Cleveland Clinic brought to the venture

While Cleveland Clinic’s involvement directly affected some students more than others, all recognized the prestige of the Clinic’s brand – and the value of the clinical opportunities it provided.

“One of the main draws for me was the connection with Cleveland Clinic, guaranteeing our third- and fourth-year clerkship years going through Cleveland Clinic hospitals,” Gotowka said. “And on my interview trail for residencies, just saying the words ‘Cleveland Clinic’ carried a lot of weight. I was pretty proud to say I had gone to an osteopathic medical school that was associated with Cleveland Clinic.”

“Being in an active clinical setting was really nice,” Cutler added. “We walked in the lobby of the South Pointe building and saw the patients who were there to see the doctor or to go to dialysis clinic. So that was just a nice reminder every day of why we’re doing what we’re doing. It kind of kept you grounded in the real world.”

“We had a lot of interaction with attending physicians and residents at South Pointe Hospital,” Sarma said. “There were Ohio University graduates doing their residencies there, so we could talk to them, and even the attending doctors at South Pointe were really accessible. And Cleveland Clinic is like, the top in the world, so it was good to take some rotations there and clinical experiences.”

Making college history

And like the class of 2018 from the Heritage College, Dublin, or the class of 1980 at Athens, Cleveland’s class of 2019 can forever enjoy knowing they were the first.

“I think it’s really significant, and I’d like to think that we provided a good example for the classes to come,” said Alex Myers, whose residency in general surgery will be at William Beaumont Army Medical Center in Texas. “And I think that collectively there is a pride that we have in being the first ones to do this here in Cleveland. I’m very happy that we were the group that was chosen to blaze the trail.”