News

Engineering a Career in Medicine

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

by Deborah Daun

When Shannon Driscoll’s engineering colleagues joined her to exercise during their lunch hour, she was happy. When they began reporting positive changes in their health, she was elated.

“It’s a great feeling to support people, see their progress, and even have them thank me,” she says.

Shannon was engaged in sports as a child and teenager and continued competing as an adult, eventually ranking in the top 10 percent nationally for amateur triathletes in her age group. But to Shannon, those achievements paled in comparison to her colleagues’ tales of no more diabetes and Crohn’s Disease, reduced alcohol consumption, and having more energy.Convocation

She was intrigued by the changes they experienced and started reading, taking online courses, and thinking about going back to school for a degree in nutrition. Her husband of 16 years, Chris—also an engineer and the smartest person she knows—had another idea: get a medical degree from the University of Arizona (UA) College of Medicine in Tucson.

Chris assured her that if she “went for it,” he and their daughter, Tyler, would do everything they could to support her. He did more household chores, took Tyler to school, helped Shannon find perspective and— at times — refocus, reminding her that the goal wasn’t to get the top grade in the class but to help others live healthier lives.

In May of this year, she added an M.D. to the B.S and M.S that already follow her name. The new Dr. Driscoll begins a three-year family medicine residency in June at the Banner-University Alvernon Clinic in Tucson.

Family medicine physician Don Smith, M.D., who graduated from the UA’s medical school in 1985, thinks family medicine is the right choice for Dr. Driscoll. She completed two rotations with him during her third and fourth years of medical school and hopes to model her own practice on his United Community Health Center practice in Green Valley and Arivaca.

“Shannon connected so well with patients that they wanted to see her and not me,” says Dr. Smith. “She is very good at taking care of people, she’s very smart, and she embodies a healthy lifestyle.”

From Pocatello to Tucson

Dr. Driscoll arrived in Tucson via Pocatello, Idaho, a town of about 50,000 in the western foothills of the Rocky Mountains where her family has deep roots. Her father, Larry Bybee, coached the basketball team when she was in high school and has a dental practice in this town dubbed the "U.S. Smile Capital.” Larry now shares the practice with a daughter-in-law and his youngest living son will join the practice when he graduates from dental school next year.

Dr. Driscoll and her siblings lost their mother and youngest brother in car accident when she was a freshman in college. “My dad held the family together and took care of his six remaining children,” she says.

Because they were raised by a dentist, Dr. Driscoll and her siblings were taught the importance of good nutrition for the sake of oral health. “The benefits of healthy food and healthy living go well beyond a sparkling smile, though, and my parents really emphasized the importance of sports, sleep, family and relationships to maintain health,” she says. “They instilled in us a sense of searching for ways to best support our bodies’ own ability to heal and maintain good health without chemicals, medicines or junk food.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Engineering and a master’s degree in Measurements and Controls Engineering from Idaho State University in Pocatello, Dr. Driscoll worked as an engineer for two years in her hometown.

In 2002, she was accepted to the UA’s Optical Sciences doctorate program and took a full-time engineering position with Arete Associates in Tucson to work on an underwater optical seeker that is deployed in front of a Navy fleet to search for buried mines. Chris, who now has an M.B.A. from the UA, took a position with Raytheon and is a deputy director in charge of a large group of engineers.

Plans for a Ph.D. changed after she became pregnant with Tyler, who was born in 2005. Knowing that her responsibilities at home would increase, Dr. Driscoll withdrew from the Ph.D. program and continued to work at Arete for 13 years, going part time in 2013 during her first two years of medical school.

Her dad helped her through the career change, too. “He really encouraged me and extinguished my doubts about being too old to start a new career. He reminded me that ‘when you love doing something, you’ll keep doing it for as long as possible.’  You don’t have to retire when you are 65 because life extends well beyond those years.”

Giving Her Patients the “Best Shot Possible”

Dr. Driscoll looks forward to seeing patients every day during her residency. Getting to know them and their families over time and developing long-term relationships is important to Dr. Driscoll because she believes people thrive with personalized care.

“I want to do the best job I can and give my patients the best shot possible.

“We are physical, emotional and spiritual individuals who are part of families and communities,” she says. “I want to understand each patient, his or her goals, and each person’s network of support.

What about recalcitrant patients? “I’ll find out why. What’s the roadblock?” She says she’ll figure out what the patient might at least be willing to do and provide them with options. Patients often feel like they’ve lost control when they are sick, and choices help them regain a measure of control in their lives.

“It might be more complicated than that, but at a minimum I will try to understand where each of my patients is coming from.”

As her engineering colleagues inspired her to make a career change, Dr. Driscoll hopes to inspire her patients to make healthy changes that positively impact their lives. She wants them to know that they are not “stuck” with their diagnosis.

“We are learning everyday about how our choices, environment, and relationships are shaping our health, and I want to bring this information back to my patients and empower them to start reshaping their futures.”