Photo by Jay Paul
Benjamin Nicholson (left) and Dr. Harinder Dhindsa on VCU’s helipad
For some applicants, admission to medical school is a goal sought through linear pursuit. For Benjamin Nicholson, a globetrotting flight paramedic, it took a few stops along the way to discover his calling was emergency medicine.
“Med school is the kind of thing you aren’t able to appreciate until you make the commitment,” says Nicholson, 31, who will graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Medicine in May. “Having an end goal has been a really big motivator when I have a tough day.”
Nicholson attended St. Christopher’s School in Richmond and enrolled at the University of Virginia, majoring in English literature. When he earned his degree in 2007, he took a job with the Richmond Ambulance Authority as a paramedic, building on previous experience he’d had as a volunteer firefighter in Albemarle County and first responder in Goochland. “The best-paying job an English major can get is as a paramedic,” he jokes.
LifeEvac of Virginia hired Nicholson in January 2008 as a flight paramedic. The team he worked on transported patients in need of critical care to the hospital via helicopter. The experience led to involvement with the Inter-national Trauma System Development program, which took him to Ecuador, where he helped develop a plan for transporting trauma patients throughout the Amazon basin.
Later humanitarian efforts drew Nicholson to Haiti and Thailand, experiences that solidified his interest in emergency medicine, he says. “A lot of countries have great urban hospitals, but not the capacity and systems to get people to them.”
While working with the flight program, Nicholson caught the eye of Dr. Harinder Dhindsa, now the
chief of emergency services for the VCU Health System. Dhindsa recommended that Nicholson bolster his résumé — and med school application — with scholarly research.
Since then, they have collaborated on more than two dozen projects, most recently a peer-reviewed article analyzing whether heart attack victims are better off if initially transferred to a major hospital, regardless of proximity to other, smaller facilities.
The extra effort Nicholson gives on research endeavors “signifies his commitment” to the emergency medicine field, Dhindsa says. “Ben is an excellent clinician as a paramedic and a medical student. He’s very diligent, compassionate and patient-centric in everything he does.”
After completing his residency, Nicholson says he may seek a fellowship abroad or look for a long-term project that enables him to help expand the system of care in a particular country or region. “Everybody has their reason for going into medicine. You feel the calling, or enjoy the patient interaction, or you’re fascinated by the human body. For me, it’s the international component.”