Spartans of UD: Allie Colsch

Oct 10, 2018 | University Relations

Spartans of UD highlights what makes University of Dubuque special – the people who live, work, and study on campus. Allie Colsch, a student in the Master of Physician Assistant Studies program, has an unbreakable determination and resiliency. On March 24, 2018, Allie was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She recently finished six rounds of chemo and is now in remission. Throughout the treatments, Allie was determined to remain in the physician assistant program. With the support of faculty, staff, and classmates, Allie not only continued her studies, but she also remained one of the top performers in her class.

Spartans of UD - Allie Colsch
Allie Colsch
Master of Physician Assistant Studies Program Student

1. When did you know you wanted to become a physician assistant?

“My interest in pursuing a career as a physician assistant (PA) really began after participating in a physical therapy internship over a J-Term my junior year of undergraduate studies. I really enjoyed the interactions with patients, but my internship made me realize that I had a strong interest in preventative medicine. My roommate spent her J-Term shadowing a PA and had a great experience which prompted me to explore the profession.”

2. Why did you choose to attend the University of Dubuque?

“I grew up about two hours north of Dubuque in a river town that is very similar to Dubuque. I am very close with my family, and being nestled in the bluffs makes me feel at home. I was interested in this program specifically because it was new. I thought it would be a great experience to be part of the building of a physician assistant program. How awesome to be able to say you were in the second graduating class at the UD PA program, right?!?!"

3. On March 24, 2018, you were diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After your diagnosis, what kinds of treatment did you go through?

“I was diagnosed with primary mediastinal B-cell lymphoma, which is a very aggressive lymphoma. Aggressive cancer meant aggressive treatment. I went through six rounds of pretty intense chemotherapy at Gundersen Lutheran Health Systems in La Crosse, Wisconsin. For each round of chemo, I was in the hospital for five days. After those five days, I had about a two-week ‘break’ until I began my next cycle. I took an extra week off before my last treatment so that I could finish my summer semester finals. My first cycle began on April 19 and my last cycle ended on August 14. Prior to starting chemotherapy, I underwent fertility treatments and cryopreservation at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in order to harvest and freeze egg cells as there was a chance the chemo would cause infertility.”

4. While undergoing treatment for cancer, you continued your studies with the physician assistant program and remained one of the top performers. Why did you decide to remain at the University of Dubuque instead of taking a medical leave of absence?

“In those initial days after my diagnosis, I felt as though cancer had taken so many things from me. My fertility was in jeopardy, my hair would soon be gone, my physical strength would slowly diminish, and my family was in complete shock. In a matter of a few days, my world had come crashing down. I did not want cancer to put my dream of being a PA on hold, but I also knew how difficult PA school was without cancer. I was nearing the end of spring semester, and, after the diagnosis, I met with the program faculty and the student evaluation committee. We agreed that I would finish the spring semester because we were only about five weeks away from finals. We sort of used this as a trial period to try to get an understanding for exactly how much would go into managing chemotherapy and PA school. After those few weeks, the decision was up to me whether I would decide to attempt to continue on or to take a medical leave of absence. When the time came to make that decision, I reflected on the past few weeks and the past year. In those few weeks, PA school had been my distraction from everything that was happening around me. I didn't have time to be sad or to be scared and that turned out to be a saving grace. I knew that even though it would be hard, this distraction would help me stay motivated to be strong, to be fearless, and not to let cancer control my life. As I thought about the last year, I realized that I had worked too hard to step away. At the very least, I owed it to myself to try and if I couldn't keep up with the coursework, then I would take a leave of absence.”

5. How have the faculty, staff, and students within the physician assistant program helped you since your diagnosis?

“The personnel of the PA program have been fantastic! The professors have been so accommodating, especially during the times I had to be away from campus. If exams were scheduled during rounds of chemotherapy, the professors would arrange for me to take them at a different time with another faculty or staff member in the PA offices. Whenever I missed a lecture, the professors were more than happy to meet with me and go over anything I was confused about. One of my professors even allowed me to FaceTime into class when I was hospitalized with a fever. The program purchased software that allowed me to live stream any lectures that were held in the main classrooms so that I wouldn't fall behind since I spent several days in the hospital during each cycle of chemo. My classmates have also been incredibly supportive. Everyone has been checking on how I am feeling and asking if there is anything they can do to help. Many of my classmates have offered to study with me, share notes from lectures I missed, and work with me on group projects to accommodate my schedule. My mom had Team Allie shirts made and nearly all of the program faculty, staff, and students have one. I feel so encouraged whenever I see those.” 

6. What message do you have for others who are interested in becoming a physician assistant?

“Commitment. That is what it takes. If that is your dream, you have to focus everyday on how you can get yourself closer to that goal. It is not easy, but every shadowing or work experience that you gain, every test that you take, every project that you finish is one step closer. You just have to take it one day at a time (sometimes it seems like you take it one minute at a time). You just have to go out and try your hardest to be the best that you can be every day.”