The black leather physician’s bag, the handle worn from use, sits on top of a file cabinet in Dr. Cara Calvelli’s office. It belonged to her grandfather and, later, her own father, who carried it on weekend house calls, often with his children tagging along behind him.
The empty bag, heavy with family history, stands in contrast to changes that reshaped the medical profession in the 20th century. Physician assistants, for instance, began practicing only in the 1970s, in response to a shortage of doctors. The students Calvelli is educating at RIT will help counterbalance the looming shortage of health-care professionals tied to the retirement of the baby boomers.
Calvelli is a fourth-generation medical doctor and a professor in the physician assistant program. This year, she joins an elite group of professors on campus regarded as exemplary educators. These professors are handpicked and bestowed with an Eisenhart Award for Outstanding Teaching. For Calvelli, the recognition is more than a vote of confidence from her students; it confirms that she made the right choice in shifting her career path from patient care to teaching. “The award will be a highlight of my career,” she says.
“You know you love your job when you’re driving to work and you have to turn off NPR [National Public Radio] so you can concentrate on what you want to accomplish in the classroom—and that is how it often is for me,” she says. “On my best days I’m thinking, I’m planning, I’m redesigning. It excites me.
“For me, the joy is right there in the classroom. At the end of a three-hour lecture, I am probably more excited than my students. But those are the days that I really know I’m in the right place.”
Calvelli teaches medicine to third-year students. She covers disorders in every organ system and manifestations of disease in different patient populations. She also interweaves the art of medicine into her discussions. Calvelli’s yearlong class prepares each cohort for clinical rotations that cover a variety of specialties and health-care settings.
“When I teach, I feel connected to patients because they are at the heart of what I’m trying to communicate to students,” she says. “If I can impart a sense of deep caring and a need for lifelong learning, then in the long run, I’m still helping patients.”
Aspects of the medical field pervade Calvelli’s life, tracing back to her Italian-educated great-grandfather Giuseppe Calvelli, who, in 1892, became the 13th licensed doctor in New York. Calvelli and her spouse, Sharon Glezen, who is also a physician, love “talking medicine” with each other and at the dinner table with their children Hannah, 17, and Aidan, 14. The whole family has spent hours with their 15-month-old black Labrador, Gibbs, preparing him to be a certified therapy dog.
Balancing the volume of work with other aspects of life—while maintaining a cheerful attitude—is something Calvelli tries to model for her students during their overwhelming third year. The intense eight months of learning clinical medicine is the foundation they will build upon during their clinical rotations.
“It’s an amazing journey and in their faces there’s a mixture of excitement and slight terror at the thought,” she says. “But I’ve been here long enough to know that they’re ready. I feel so much anticipation for them because seeing patients is the privilege of this job. And it’s where so much passion and empathy and knowledge really begins.”