By Jasmina Salcinovic-Spahic, DMSc, MMSc, M.H.A.’18, PA-C, DFAAPA
The Bosnian War (April 1992 – December 1995) changed the life of Jasmina Salcinovic-Spahic, DMSc, MMSc, M.H.A.’18, PA-C, DFAAPA. She has been a practicing physician assistant (PA) for 12 years and currently works in medical hematology-oncology at the Veterans Affairs Central Iowa Health Care (VACIHC) System in Des Moines. A member of the PA Professional Standards Board at VACIHC, she is a preceptor for DMU PA students and recently launched a three-month mentorship program for pre-PA students.
This story is excerpted with permission from an article that was posted Jan. 8, 2021, on the American Academy of Physician Assistants website.
I was 10 years old when the Bosnian War started. We lived in Zenica, not far from Sarajevo, and before the war, our country (Yugoslavia) was strong politically and economically. Both my parents worked, and we often travelled and visited other parts of Europe and Yugoslavia. We lived a good life. When the war started, our lives changed immensely. We went from being a middle-class family to being poor overnight.
1993 and 1994 were especially hard. We children learned to hide and seek shelter whenever we heard sirens announcing bombarding. There was bombarding almost every day. On the radio, we often heard of villages burned down, people killed and genocide. It was very scary. There was a shortage of medical personnel and supplies in each city. Seeing this, I developed a desire to help people and be in a medical field.
We did not have much food or water. Each day we carried water from the local springs, sometimes several kilometers away. Electricity was off for most days, so we used oil and thread (candles were too expensive) to have light at night. In the winter, we went to the local forest and my father cut down a tree, which we all dragged to our home, cut it into pieces, and used it to stay warm over the cold winter months.
I remember being scared whether we would be able to make it through another day. I remember my parents not eating for a few days so my brother and I could have food. I remember going with my mother to knock on other people’s doors, asking for food. It was hard.
In 1995, through family members, my aunt and uncle were able to obtain visas and moved to Atlanta. A year later, my aunt was able to send visas to my parents. We went through multiple interviews and had to undergo medical exams and lab testing before we were approved to come to the United States.
In May 1997, I came home from school one day, two weeks before the end of eighth grade. We had received a letter from the American Embassy. We left for the United States two days later. We arrived in Atlanta on May 23, 1997. We settled in Clarkston, GA, where our aunt and uncle lived, as well as many other Bosnian refugees. We started our new life with two bags of belongings. We spoke no English. Local churches and nonprofit organizations helped us with food and gave us blankets. The first year, even communicating to buy groceries was a struggle. We had a Serbo-Croatian/English dictionary and would memorize words and quiz each other every night after dinner. My father instilled in my brother and me that education was the path to a better life for us. We slept on the floor in our apartment for months, but we were happy to be in a free country, have food, and that we didn’t have to worry about war anymore.
In high school, I threw myself into studies and extracurriculars. I started college locally, in Clarkson, as a pre-med student, then transferred to Georgia State University for my bachelor of science in psychology.
While I was an undergrad, I worked part-time at CVS as a pharmacy tech. At the time, my goal was to go to medical school. But one day, a physician came by and spoke with the pharmacist about their chosen medical careers. During the conversation, the physician mentioned “PA program.” I asked: What is a PA program? He explained the profession was fairly new but gives lots of flexibility to practice in many medical specialties, and that I should look into it. He offered to get me in touch with someone from Emory University who could share more about the profession, and I took him up on it.
I shadowed PAs in family practice, dermatology and orthopedics. I fell in love with the profession. I applied to Emory’s PA program and was accepted. I remember how happy I was, and I never looked back.
After I graduated, I moved to Iowa with my husband, who lived there. My first job was in family practice in Chariton, IA. I also took call at the emergency department. I took advantage of the flexibility of the PA profession. Not only did I move between specialties, I also chose to work part time to better balance my work and family life.
At the VA, I work in medical hematology-oncology. Given my experience with war in Bosnia, I instantly felt connections with my patients – all of them veterans. I have had some of my most meaningful moments seeing these veterans smile as a result of the care I provided to them, in addition to hearing their stories about war and all the places they have visited. Their military experiences and war stories inspired me and motivated me to push myself to work even harder and broaden my knowledge and skills. As a result, I have completed both a master’s degree in health care administration from DMU and a doctorate of medical science from the University of Lynchburg with a fellowship in medical hematology-oncology. In April 2020, the American Academy of Physician Assistants recognized me with the Distinguished Fellow designation.
As a PA, the most rewarding experience for me has been when I see my patients get and feel better as a result of care I provided. Throughout my career, I’ve tried to remember: Never give up, always keep learning and expand knowledge and skills as much as possible.