Physician assistant graduate recognized for exceptional transgender care

October 26, 2023

Cheryl Sturgis stands in front of the Grand Canyon wearing a hat and vest.

Cheryl Sturgis, MHS ’14, a graduate of the physician assistant program at Quinnipiac, recently earned recognition at Dartmouth Health as the 2023 physician assistant of the year.

Sturgis was exposed to the field of medicine at an early age, growing up with her father working as a pediatrician and her mother as a nurse and then a nurse practitioner. Due to her familiarity and passion for the field, Sturgis immediately became interested in working at a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) in primary care during her time at Quinnipiac.

Her experience at Quinnipiac transformed her career path, she said, leading her to a six-year position at a community health center, Northwest Human Services, Inc. in Salem, Oregon.

“I had the opportunity to care for a super diverse patient population including patients experiencing homelessness, migrant farmworkers and patients speaking a variety of languages including Spanish, Russian, Ukrainian, American Sign Language (ASL), Arabic and Vietnamese, among others,” said Sturgis. “About half of my visits each day were done in a language other than English. I also started the transgender program at the clinic and was able to gain experience in working with transgender patients in a primary care setting.”

Sturgis moved to her current position at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire, due to experiencing burnout at her previous job.

“Primary care gives you the chance to see a little bit of everything, so you can truly learn about what you like and don’t like regarding areas of medicine,” said Sturgis. “I found that I loved the relationship building with patients that diabetes and transgender care provide, so when deciding to move to a specialty practice, endocrinology seemed like the best choice for me. I grew up in Vermont, so was interested in moving back to this area to be closer to family. When I interviewed for my current job, I found out I would be doing both diabetes and transgender care, so it seemed like a perfect fit.”

Sturgis was introduced to transgender medicine while at Quinnipiac in her primary care rotation at Fenway Health in Boston, she said.

During this experience, she discovered that healthcare access is difficult for transgender people, as many medical providers have had little to no training either in their education or professional careers. Sturgis added that many transgender patients avoid accessing healthcare as a result of this.

“I saw firsthand how life-changing hormone therapy is and the quality-of-life improvements that occur after starting medical transition,” said Sturgis. “Given that not many people do this work, I am honored to provide care to this patient population and provide a service that is difficult to access, especially in a rural setting like where I live. I feel blessed to watch my patients over time as they progress in their transition and have more confidence about how they present themselves to the world.”

Joining the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) and attending conferences have expanded Sturgis’ knowledge and capabilities in this area of medical care, she shared.

Additionally, Fenway Health hosts an annual conference that she has attended in the past and offers many training videos on its National LGBTQIA+ Health Education Center website that are free and accessible to anyone. The American Academy of Physician Assistants also has an LGBTQ+ caucus which is a great place to make connections, she added.

Sturgis said that it is unique to treat transgender patients since the focus isn’t curing an illness, it is providing care to benefit the lives of LGBTQ+ people, she said. This area of medicine is personal to her, as she is a lesbian and aims to support those in her community.

Working at Dartmouth Health for three years now, Sturgis’ passion helped her earn the honor of PA of the year, an announcement that was a shock to her.

At a weekly case conference meeting, many members of the pediatric endocrinology transgender team were gathered, making Sturgis anticipate bad news, she explained. However, when an administrative PA began speaking about the award, Sturgis quickly realized that she was the only one in her department in the room. To her total surprise, she was chosen for the honor.

She expressed how emotional it was for her to earn the award and how she always strives to advocate for her patients. Being recognized on a personal level was an achievement, but bringing positive attention to the endocrinology practice and transgender program at Dartmouth Health was even more significant to Sturgis.

“I always try to do my best for my patients, treat them with care and respect and meet them where they are,” she said. “There’s a lot of medical trauma and distrust of the medical system with this population, and for good reason given their previous experiences in a variety of medical settings. My hope is that I can provide a positive place for them to access healthcare where they feel trusted and heard."

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