Laurie Clair was having a bad day. She’d been pondering pursuing a career in health care, but she knew she couldn’t juggle that with her high-stress, travel-intensive job as an event manager with a central Iowa firm. The single mom of a pre-schooler, Clair was anxious about chasing her dream but even more frustrated by her current situation.
That’s why, when she drove by DMU that day, she had to pull over. “I thought, ‘I have to walk on campus.’ It was like lightning struck me,” she recalls. She walked into the office of Joshua Kvinlaug, one of the University’s admission directors, and asked, “What does it mean to be a PA?”
That was a full three years before Clair applied to DMU’s physician assistant program. She first had to switch to a more flexible job in the medical field to gain health care experience, a PA program prerequisite. An undergraduate finance and management major, she had to complete several prerequisite science courses and finish getting her bachelor’s degree. She had to get over the fact she’d flunked high school chemistry. Amid those challenges, though, she never doubted her decision.
“I put ‘Laurie Clair, PA-C’ on a Post-it note on my bathroom mirror and looked at it every day,” she says.
It doesn’t matter if you’re homeless or if you don’t have all your science prerequisites. It doesn’t matter if you flunked out of high school chemistry. You can still change your life.
If you think Clair is determined, you would be only about one-third right, because she’s at least three times as strong as you think. At a young age, she established a successful career in not-for-wimps Los Angeles. To fulfill prerequisites for the PA program, she took classes at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC), Simpson College, Grand View and Drake universities and online.
Her mightiest show of strength, however, occurred in 2003, when her abusive husband put her in the hospital and landed himself in jail. Angered at her demands for a divorce, he cancelled the couple’s apartment when he was released. At age 22, Clair was the homeless mother of a three-month-old daughter.
As is often the case in domestic abuse situations, Clair is not someone you’d pick to be a victim. A few years earlier, at age 19 and with $500 in her pocket, she packed up her Ford Mustang, left her parents sobbing in their Le Mars, IA, driveway and set her sights on Los Angeles. There, she worked 15 hours a day, seven days a week, as an interior/exterior set designer, event planner and model. Two years later, after her parents and sister had moved to Des Moines, she returned to Iowa.
“I was massively burned out,” she says. By then divorced, Clair took the central Iowa job that didn’t make things much better. At one point, she had worked 48 consecutive days – five days in the office, two days staffing events for clients, then back to the office. She arrived at one event to find the audio-video equipment she’d requested wasn’t in place, which sent her scrambling.
“The clients were walking in. I talked to the hotel and to the hotel across the street and got everything put together while trying to keep my cool,” she says. “Afterward, I went back to my hotel room. My hands were shaking so bad, I just sunk to the floor. I thought, ‘I’ve got to make a change.’”
Clair emphasizes she was able to do so thanks to the support of others, including daughter Morgan, now 9. “There were nights I’d take her to DMU and say, ‘Here are your dolls, here’s your DS game, Mommy’s got research to do,’” she says. “She’s phenomenal, very mature and supportive. She’s my sense of humor when I think I’m losing it. When I’m frustrated, she’ll crack a joke or say, ‘Let’s take a walk.’”
Clair’s mother, Mary Clair, also is among her biggest supporters. One night she came over while Laurie was near-meltdown during the PA program’s difficult block 2. “She sat next to me and said, ‘I’ve seen you go through hell and back. You can do this. Let’s put on the coffee. Give me your book and I’ll quiz you,’” Clair recalls. “She stayed up with me several times until one or two in the morning.”
Clair credits others for helping her on the journey: her sister, Ann Hanson, who’s always supportive. Josh Kvinlaug, the DMU admission director who helped her map out her prerequisites long before she was admitted to the University. The PA program faculty who have taught and supported her. Pat Garvey, the DMACC professor who tutored her in chemistry. “He built my confidence, taught me that what I lacked in natural ability I could make up for in effort, and that probably changed my life,” Clair says.
Now in her second-year rotations, she’s jazzed about the PA program and the profession. “I’m a team player, and PAs are very oriented to being team players in health care,” she says. “Being a PA will also give me flexibility in my career. It’s a perfect marriage of my life and career goals. To help people lead healthier lives – that’s great.”
She’s had several celebratory moments as a DMU student, including passing pharmacology and experiencing DMU’s White Coat Ceremony. But the best day was when she interviewed for the PA program.
“I knew it was a huge gamble for me. I knew the program would have a ton of applicants,” she recalls. “During the interview, they asked, ‘What’s your proudest moment?’ I started crying. ‘Right now, you are living the moment with me,’ I said. I’d worked so hard to get there.”
That’s why Clair is willing to share her story, both good parts and bad. “The main reason is that it doesn’t matter if you’re homeless or if you don’t have all your science prerequisites. It doesn’t matter if you flunked out of high school chemistry. You can still change your life because the future always starts tomorrow,” she notes. “You just have to start somewhere and have faith in your abilities. You can do it if you work hard and above all believe in yourself.”