The Class of 2015

The Class of 2015

In May and June, UF Health colleges produced nearly 1,500 new graduates. For these Gator grads, the walk across the commencement stage was just the beginning of their new lives as health care experts, providers, scientists, administrators and leaders. This month, we are taking a look back at the journeys some of these graduates took to get to that stage … and what they have planned next.

 By April Frawley Lacey and Morgan Sherburne
Photos by Jesse S. Jones and Mindy Miller

Heather Wilson, Pharm.D.

Heather Wilson

Heather Wilson

The call came the day after Father’s Day in 2013. Then a second-year student in the College of Pharmacy in Jacksonville, Heather Wilson rushed from her summer internship. Her husband of 19 years had died suddenly at the age of 41, two months shy of his retirement from the U.S. Navy.

The following days were a blur of surreal events — making funeral arrangements, writing a speech for the service, watching her teenage sons, Dylan and Chase, march in the Color Guard at their own father’s funeral. Getting through each day was difficult, and Wilson wasn’t sure she would ever return to pharmacy school.

“There was a moment when we were in the car. Dylan was driving. Chase was in the back seat. I was crying again. Dylan was like ‘Mom, you cry all the time. I don’t know what to do and how to fix it.’

“I had an aha moment,” Wilson says. “I didn’t want my kids to feel like they lost both their parents that day.”

So Wilson embarked on the goal of challenging herself, doing one thing that made her uncomfortable each day. They started small with a trip to the movies to see Superman. By the time the new semester started, Wilson was back in class.

“My sons are my rock,” she says. “Going back was the best thing for me. It gave me something to focus on. Also, I have such amazing classmates. Everywhere I turned I had help and support.”

Of course, it wasn’t the first time Wilson’s sons had nudged her in a new direction. She’d entered the U.S. Navy after high school and soon found herself pursuing a career as a stay-at-home mom instead. But when her sons entered the delicate middle school years, they encouraged Wilson to get a new hobby other than “following them around,” she says. Wilson entered college, initially pursuing electrical engineering.

Her focus changed in 2009 when she was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor called an acoustic neuroma. She underwent brain surgery, lost hearing in her left ear and endured months of rehabilitation. The months spent focused on her own health inspired her to help other people as a pharmacist.

In July, Wilson will begin the next phase of her life as a pharmacist at Target in Jacksonville. Her home life will change a little too. Her youngest son graduates high school this year and will join his older brother at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. And in November, Wilson is getting married. She reconnected with a man she dated in high school.

“I feel like I am so blessed,” she says. “I got to serve in the nation’s military. I got to stay home and raise my kids. Now, I get to have an amazing career. I got to live a little in every world, and I don’t think everyone has that opportunity.”

Mikey Yuan, D.M.D.

Mikey Yuan, College of Dentistry

Mikey Yuan,

Mikey Yuan didn’t know what health care field he wanted to go into — he just knew health care was the place for him.

So the former UF swimmer job-shadowed his teammate’s dad, a dentist.

“Her dad said, ‘Come out to the office. At least if you don’t like it, we can look at other options,’” Yuan says.

Yuan liked the rapport his teammate’s dad had with the patients he had been seeing for years.

“I started studying a little harder, and taking the prerequisites I needed to take,” he says.

A food science and human nutrition major, he started taking courses such as organic chemistry, physics, microbiology and biochemistry to apply for the College of Dentistry’s doctor of dental medicine program — and to prepare for the Dental Admissions Test. Similar to the test medical students take to apply to medical school, the Dental Admissions Test has an added layer: Test takers must be able to visualize turning 2-D objects into 3-D objects, an important skill for future dentists who may have to envision what a tooth looks like based on an X-ray or how it looks reflected, backward, in a hand-held mirror.

Clearly, Yuan passed that test — and many others. He served as the president of his class for three years and has been accepted to a four-year oral and maxillofacial residency at the Emory University School of Medicine. The residency in oral and maxillofacial surgery will help him establish a private practice, potentially in surgery, and spend part of his time teaching.

Whatever kind of dentistry Yuan ends up practicing, he is most focused on echoing the rapport he saw his college teammate’s dad have with his patients.

“You can only see so many patients as an individual,” Yuan says. “But if you can teach, you’re affecting that many more future dentists and oral surgeons.”

Michael Tudeen, M.D.

Michael Tudeen

Michael Tudeen

December is the beginning of the rainy season in Mozambique, and droplets pelted the house where Michael Tudeen was packing for a conference. The sound almost drowned out the banging on the door. It was one of Tudeen’s neighbors from the village. His granddaughter had malaria and her fever wasn’t going down.

Although Tudeen, then a year into his time with the Peace Corps, had a small stash of medicine, he couldn’t give it to the man. It was against Peace Corps policy. When he returned from his trip a week later, he found out the man’s daughter had died.

“It was a really small village,” he says. “There was no doctor there, just a nurse who mostly did maternity and newborn care. There was little access to western medicine. It made a huge impact on me. I would love to go back and serve in communities and work with countries to help build up health personnel.”

Gainesville native Tudeen became interested in family medicine and working with rural communities when he developed appendicitis while on a trip with his church choir. A small town family doctor in Alabama stayed with him throughout his ordeal until his parents could get there.

His passion for helping people intensified while volunteering for the Streetlight program at UF Health Shands Hospital when he was a UF undergrad. Volunteers with the program befriend and spend time with teen patients.

“That made a big impact on me,” he says. “I saw how you could make a difference not just through medicine, but through relationships.”

In July, Tudeen will head to the Oregon Health & Science University to complete his residency in family medicine. But he’s already made plans for what comes next too. Tudeen was accepted into the
National Health Service Corps, which provides financial support to health care providers who opt to work in medically underserved communities.

Although leaving Gainesville is bittersweet — his family has been in Florida for generations — Tudeen is excited about the adventures to come, no matter where and when they happen.

“We plan on going abroad again,” he says. “We’re just not sure when it will happen.”

Lauren Pacho, D.P.T.

Lauren Pacho, Doctor of Physical Therapy student, PHHP

Lauren Pacho

Lauren Pacho is quick: She talks quickly. She earned her undergraduate degree quickly, and her time in the physical therapy graduate program at the University of Florida also shaped up to be — yep — quick.

Pacho sped through her undergraduate degree from George Washington University in three years. But she says her accomplishment has nothing to do with talent.

“I went to a really expensive school,” Pacho says, laughing. “I wish it was more profound than that.”

Still, that meant Pacho took 20 credits per semester — including one summer semester — to graduate in 2012 with a degree in international affairs. While earning this degree, she also fulfilled the prerequisites for a physical therapy graduate program. And while she brushes off this accomplishment, the College of Public Health and Health Professions didn’t, accepting Pacho into its graduate program in physical therapy. Now 23, Pacho finished her doctorate in physical therapy in three years.

Pacho hasn’t abandoned her political science background. She advocates for physical therapy at both the state and federal level, supporting bills that would allow physical therapists to extend care for patients who need it. At the national level, she has advocated for a correction in a bill that, thanks to a missing comma, combined physical therapy with speech therapy and capped the amount of treatment a patient can receive per year covered by insurance at $1,940.

Since her graduation, Pacho has taken a job at UF Health Shands Rehab Hospital on the spinal cord injury team.

“As a physical therapist, you’re spending two to three days a week with your patients, for 45 minutes to an hour,” Pacho says. “You get to see their day-to-day progress and be in the trenches with them.”

Cleon Hendricks, D.V.M.

Cleon Hendricks is a student graduating from the College of Veterinary Medicine in 2015.

Cleon Hendricks

Cleon Hendricks is a crazy cat man, and he’s more than okay with it. He has two cats: Puma and Milkshake, who had been left behind in an apartment after their owner was evicted.

“I’ve been dubbed the crazy cat man in my class,” says Hendricks, a graduate of the College of Veterinary Medicine. “I feel like there aren’t many of us, so you have to embrace it.”

The vice president of the Student Chapter of the American College of Veterinary Pathologists, Hendricks was recently commissioned as a captain in the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps.

“I’ve just always wanted to be in the military, but also had an interest in veterinary medicine,” Hendricks says. “Finding out that I could eventually do both of them drove me to veterinary medicine.”

In the military, Hendricks will gain broad experience, treating troops’ family pets as well as ceremonial horses and other animals associated with the military.

“I’ll be like a handyman of a veterinarian,” Hendricks says. “I’ll be cross-trained in a lot of different areas. It’s cool: The military has you exercise your training in many different areas on a daily basis. Hopefully, not everything will be the same every day.”

Linda Mays, D.N.P.

Linda Mays_MCM_8272

Linda Mays

Two months after Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida, Linda Mays’ husband died of a heart arrhythmia. A nursing student at the time, Mays was left with five young children to raise alone.

“I didn’t go back that semester,” she says. “I had to work. I took off for two years doing secretarial work. One day I looked up and said, ‘What are you doing? You are better than this.’”

Because of her responsibilities with her children, Mays couldn’t afford to drop everything for school, so instead of becoming a registered nurse, she started small, earning certification as a licensed practical nurse. Then she inched up another step, earning her R.N. After that, she got a bachelor’s degree. A master’s came next, followed by becoming a nurse practitioner.

“At each level, I realized there was something more I could learn, something more I could become. Because of my thirst to learn more, I always continued to keep going,” she says.

As she worked and studied, Mays discovered a passion for psychiatric nursing. She decided to take her career to the next level with a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree. UF was one of few places offering a D.N.P with a focus in psychiatric nursing. She chose UF when she learned she could take part in the program and maintain her work and residence in Miami, coming to Gainesville once a week for classes.

“I said I can invest in myself once a week to learn this craft that not many people have,” she says. “There is a small niche of psychiatric nurses.”

Twenty-one years after beginning her L.P.N. studies, Mays graduated May 1. Interestingly, she wasn’t the only one in her family to graduate in May. Her daughter graduated from law school and her son earned a bachelor’s in graphic design.

“They think because I am an overachiever they have to be too,” she says with a laugh.

Guneshi De Mel, D.M.D.

Guneshi De Mel is graduating from the College of Dentistry this year, 13 years after tragically losing her father and 11 years after emigrating to the United States from Sri Lanka.

Guneshi De Mel

As a child, Guneshi De Mel remembers her father giving away a piece of land to a poor family who needed it. He was the only one in their small town in Sri Lanka with a car so most days he gave rides to people who needed them, too.

“My parents used to do whatever they could,” says De Mel, a recent College of Dentistry graduate. “Not just for special events. It was a normal everyday thing they did. That is ingrained in me. My parents did so much for people in Sri Lanka. They helped so many people. I thought this would be the best profession to put me in a position to help people.”

De Mel and her mother emigrated from Sri Lanka to the United States in 2004, two years after her father was tragically killed. Living in the Orlando area, De Mel spent part of her time as a student at the University of Central Florida and part of her time as a full-time employee at Wachovia.

In Sri Lanka, dental care is not a priority, De Mel says. Knowing people across the world need this care interested her in the profession, although her own dental experiences had been few in the early years of her life. During the first 18 years of her life, De Mel only went to the dentist twice.

“Ironically, I passed out the first time I went to the dentist,” she says.

As a dental student, De Mel has participated in health outreach trips to Guatemala five times, twice with the college and three times with her church in Gainesville. She plans to continue this work after graduating to honor her father and mother.

“You see so many people with need, people who have never seen a dentist before,” she says. “It is overwhelming because there is so much that needs to be done, which is why I keep going back to help.

“You go thinking you are there to help people, but you come out receiving so much just from the interactions with people.”

Amanda Stiles, D.V.M.

Amanda Stiles

Amanda Stiles

Her first dream was to be an astronaut. Amanda Stiles loved staring up at the sky, thinking about the stars and the planets. Of course, her thoughts weren’t all in the clouds. She held a special affection for earth-dwelling creatures, collecting bugs in the backyard and begging her parents for pets. Dogs, cats,
fish, rabbits, hamsters, birds — she had them all at one point or another.

“Whenever I was outside I was with my dog,” she says. “We would dress her up and take pictures of her; we had a whole photo album.”

Despite her affinity for the furry set, Stiles never considered veterinary medicine as a career until the summer after her freshman year of college when she worked at a veterinary clinic. She spent most of her time walking dogs and tending to animals in the kennel. But every once in a while she got to help in the hospital.

She loved it.

After earning her bachelor’s degree at Florida Atlantic University and working for a year as a veterinary technician, Stiles was accepted into the College of Veterinary Medicine in 2011. Although she once worried taking care of injured and sick animals would make her sad, she’s found joy in learning to help people
and pets.

“I love the client interaction. lt makes me happy when people tell me I made them feel better, or I taught them something,” she says.

In July she will begin a small animal rotating internship at Colorado State University. Eventually, she hopes to specialize in oncology or surgery.

“It’s going to be hard to leave,” she says. “I have met a lot of great people over the last
four years.”

Amy Kiskaddon, Pharm.D.

Amy Kiskaddon is a 2015 College of Pharmacy graduate at the University of Florida.

Amy Kiskaddon

Amy Kiskaddon was on a medical mission trip to Nicaragua when pharmacy came calling for her. “My bachelor of arts is in piano performance, but I always had an interest in health care,” Kiskaddon says. “During a medical mission trip I was on, the pharmacy set up for the trip was really busy and the pharmacist had asked me to help for a day. I just loved it.”

Kiskaddon was taken not only with counseling patients who came into the pharmacy, but also learning about the intricacies of the pharmaceuticals themselves.

“The medications — how they work in the body — just fascinated me,” Kiskaddon says.

While a College of Pharmacy student, Kiskaddon developed interests in the fields of infectious diseases, pediatrics and pharmaceutical outcomes — and filled her remaining time with travel, cooking and art, both visual and auditory. And while an outside observer may not see an overlap between Kiskaddon’s undergraduate degree in piano performance and her graduate program in pharmacy, Kiskaddon herself sees a kinship.

“Like anything in life, what you put into something is what you’re going to get out of it,” Kiskaddon says. “Both piano performance and pharmacy require determination and persistence, but at the end of the day, what it really comes down to is passion and enthusiasm for what you’re doing, and that sometimes serves as a driver for you to accomplish things and contribute to society.”

Terry Tokash, B.S.N.

Terry Tokash, Nursing student, College of Nursing

Terry Tokash

From the outside, it may look like Terry Tokash likes getting degrees.

The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or ROTC, veteran has three degrees: a bachelor’s degree in physical therapy and dual master’s degrees in health administration and business management. The one he’s about to earn, an accelerated bachelor’s degree in nursing? That’ll be his fourth.

But Tokash really just wants to secure a good job so he can spend more time with
his family.

“I’ve basically been working overtime or two jobs for the last dozen years,” Tokash says. “I want to be able to spend more time with my wife and two boys.”

Tokash graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physical therapy in 2002. Not long after he began working, he also earned dual master’s degrees in health administration and business management, graduating in 2005.

When he found he missed working directly with people, Tokash went back to physical therapy, this time in outpatient and
homecare settings.

In 2008, another challenge arose: He was deployed for a year in Iraq, stationed in Tikrit. There, he worked in a combat support hospital and was exposed to acute care.

Back from Iraq, Tokash found his niche in the intensive care unit, where the work of nurses caught his attention.

“As a physical therapist, I worked in acute care in the hospital and really saw the impact that nurses could have on people’s lives,” Tokash says. “I also saw all the opportunities nursing has.”

Eventually, Tokash, who was elected as the Region 2 director on the board of the Florida Nursing Student Association, is considering becoming a certified registered nurse anesthetist. In the nursing field, Tokash thinks he will be able to satisfy his passions: Spending time with his family, helping people and teaching.

“My real passion is really teaching, and that’s what I want to do eventually,” says Tokash, who plans to first work in the intensive care unit of a hospital. “Then, ll consider exactly what career path I want to pursue. Ultimately, my long-term goal is to be a professor — some day.”

Lillie O’steen, M.D.

Lillie Emmelhainz O'Steen recently graduated from the UF College of Medicine's medical school.

Lillie O’Steen

When Lillie O’steen was born, her bones were broken.

Her femurs and clavicles were fractured. The white around her eyes was blue. Her doctors knew the cause almost immediately: Osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease. A genetic condition, the disease affects between 20,000-50,000 people in the United States, according to the Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation.

Over the next two decades, as her body grew, she endured more than 30 broken bones.

“It’s a lot worse when you’re growing. Your bones are a lot weaker,” O’steen says.

O’steen hasn’t broken a bone in a few years, and many operations  to her spine and legs have helped her live a more normal life.

“I have a lot of doctors to thank for being able to walk and stand,” O’Steen says.

This early care led O’steen to aim for a career in medicine. The first among her siblings and cousins to attend college, O’steen, who grew up in Lake Butler, graduated from UF with a degree in biology from the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences in 2011 and graduated from the College of Medicine in May.

As she was starting medical school, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She passed away in 2012. With her mother’s death came another challenge: a 10-year-old sister her mother had adopted the year before she became sick. O’steen, along with her new husband Rien, made the only choice that made sense to them: They adopted O’steen’s sister.

“Since I lived near the hospital where my mother was being treated, Gwen stayed at our house a lot,” O’steen says. “It was an easy and natural transition.”

A 25-year-old adopting a daughter little more than a decade younger than her may not have seemed simple, but O’steen calls the adoption nothing but a blessing.

“I was the softball mom for her team last year,” O’steen says. “I get along best with the 40-year-old moms at her games. I definitely feel old at heart.”

O’steen will begin a residency in radiation oncology at UF Health in July.

Cuc Tran, Ph.D.

Cuc Tran

Cuc Tran

Call them the James Bonds of epidemics, members of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Epidemic Intelligence Service are selected each year to serve for two years, preventing, identifying and responding to deadly disease outbreaks across the globe. The elite program only accepts up to 80 new officers each year, and this year, Cuc Tran, a recent graduate of the College of Public Health and Health Professions, was one of them.

“It is so competitive, I still can’t believe it,” Tran says, breaking into a smile.

Of course, for her mentors and those who know her, Tran’s success is not so surprising, and neither is her commitment to helping people through her work in public health.

After her family immigrated to the United States when Tran was 5, she sometimes struggled in school as a non-native English speaker. That changed in fourth grade, when one of her teachers took the time to work with her and recognized Tran’s potential.

“She was one of the first people to say ‘You’re really bright’ and proceeded to help me,” Tran remembers. “If my teacher didn’t do that for me, my life would have turned out really differently.”

At UF, Tran continued to find mentors who believed in her, and their guidance helped shape the trajectory of her career.

Six years ago Tran was fresh out of UF, having earned back-to-back degrees, first a bachelor’s and then a master’s in public health. She took a job with the Emerging Pathogens Institute helping to coordinate the Control Flu program. A partnership between UF, the Alachua County Department of Health and the Alachua County Public Schools, the Control Flu program aims to vaccinate the county’s schoolchildren in order to reduce the spread of flu throughout
the community.

Her work as a doctoral student, studying the effectiveness of the school-based vaccination model, has led her to become a leading authority on the subject. Her dissertation proved Alachua County’s program indirectly protected 90 percent of 0-4 year-olds and protected 80 percent of school-age children while immunizing 50 percent of schoolchildren in the county.

For Tran, leaving Gainesville is bittersweet. She arrived here at age 18, beginning her undergraduate degree in the summer as part of a program for first-generation students to assimilate to college life. Now, at 31, she’s leaving with three degrees, a husband, a dog and a major flu program under her belt.

“I am sad to leave the family I have built here in Alachua County” she says. “Everyone has been so amazing and supportive. They made every day one of the best days of my life. ”