Former U.S. Marine and Bethpage resident Thomas Martin was inspired to join the field of medicine after a health scare. NewsdayTV’s Macy Egeland reports.  Credit: Newsday/Howard Schnapp

An unexpected health scare at the age of 21 led Thomas Martin to a medical career that was launched Thursday with his graduation from Hofstra University's Northwell School of Nursing and Physician Assistant Studies.

“It's a mix of emotions — excited for sure, a little anxious, but we made it. We are here. We are across the finish line,” said Martin, of Bethpage, who graduated with a masters of science in Physician Assistant Studies and was one of about 600 students who earned their degrees at Hofstra’s winter commencement.

Earlier Thursday, Martin, 30, participated in the white coat ceremony at the John Cranford Adams Playhouse on campus. The ceremony is a rite of passage for physician assistant students as they transition to their careers. He received his white coat and joined his classmates in taking the professional oath for his career.

Thomas Martin receives his traditional white coat during the winter...

Thomas Martin receives his traditional white coat during the winter commencement ceremony at Hofstra University in Hempstead on Thursday. Credit: Howard Schnapp

And he won an unexpected honor when Hofstra officials presented him with the “Shining Star” award for his accomplishments and work ethic while in the nearly three-year program.

“I did not know that that was coming, but it was humbling and made me tear up a little bit for sure,” he said. 

He was joined by his fiancee, Vanessa Carlson, and three children, Isabella, 8, Lucas, 4, and Mya, 19 months.

It had been a long time getting to this moment, and he was thrilled to be there.

After graduating from Bethpage High School in 2011, Martin joined the U.S. Marine Corps and was stationed at Camp Pendleton in California. He was deployed in the Marine expeditionary unit and spent nine months traveling to ports worldwide.

When his tour ended, he returned to Bethpage and started to work as a transporter at St. Francis Hospital, where he would take patients to different tests within the hospital. One afternoon about nine years ago, he felt dizzy at work and passed out. He was taken to the emergency room, where it was revealed he had a leaky heart valve and needed emergency heart surgery.

“Recovery is kind of where I felt that I knew that I wanted to become a PA,” he said. “They're just giving you good care, explaining everything and … it had a real impact. And I'd really understood that that's what I wanted to do.”

After recovering, he continued to work at St. Francis and enrolled in Nassau Community College to seek a career in the medical field, but he was unsure of which path to take. He then enrolled at Farmingdale State College, where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in bioscience before going to Hofstra for its PA program. 

By now, he and Carlson had two children between them, and another was in the near future. Becoming a physician assistant meant that Martin will be a licensed medical professional with an advanced degree who can provide direct patient care.

The workload was heavy, he said, especially raising three children at the same time. Carlson picked up extra shifts as a nurse’s aide to help him make it through, and she put her own schooling on pause. He would start studying at about 9 p.m. until early in the morning and then get up to help get the children to school and take care of the little one. 

“Having the kids did cause me to work harder and strive for a better job,” he said.

The academic coordinator for Hofstra's physician assistant program, Christine Zammit, described him as a “bright light to all of his peers during the program, always with an encouraging word or a smile, even on some of the most stressful days.”

Now, Martin is looking for work and wants to focus on pediatrics and possibly pediatric cardiology, drawing on his own experience.

But Thursday was for celebrating. The family was planning to go to a graduation dinner and then spend the holiday week with the kids opening presents and seeing relatives.

“I look at him every day as an inspiration,” Carlson said. “This is a happy moment for us.”

His newly obtained degree “signifies better Christmases in the future,” he said. “It was not easy to provide all the gifts you want to give the kids when you have limited means, and I told the kids this is the last one and it will get a little bit better every time.”

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