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From emulation to education
Family and faculty kept this physician close

When he was applying to medical schools, Tom Churilla, MD, had an important person to consider: his dad, Thomas. “My dad was my role model,” Dr. Churilla said. An auto mechanic who raised his son alone after his wife Joan passed, Thomas Churilla provided an example of hard work, devotion and integrity that young Tom was eager to emulate. So when the senior Churilla was diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer during the time that the junior Churilla was still an undergraduate at The University of Scranton, staying closer to home to study medicine became an attractive option.

“I was a senior in college when my dad was diagnosed,” Dr. Churilla said. “It was his dream that I would attend medical school. He was thrilled to see me receive my lab coat during the white coat ceremony at TCMC [now Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine] as a member of its first class, the Class of 2013.”

Although Dr. Churilla had other admissions offers, the combination of remaining near family and having the chance to help create something new in his hometown proved hard to resist. In addition, Dr. Churilla said there were other unique features about the school that appealed to him. “I had excellent classmates and friends at TCMC,” he said. “I also knew just how much the community valued building the school — there was so much excitement around it. Plus, I knew the first class would receive a lot of individualized attention.”

Dr. Churilla said he was not disappointed, especially with the one-on-one attention he received from faculty. There was one thing, however, that surprised him: the support he received from physicians in the community, especially Harmar Brereton, MD, Madhava Baikadi, MD, and Christopher Peters, MD, of Northeast Radiation Oncology Centers (NROC). Dr. Peters is now a colleague, but when Dr. Churilla was a medical student, he provided much-needed guidance.

“Drs. Brereton and Peters were my first professional mentors,” Dr. Churilla said. “They were so welcoming. I still recall many of my first valuable lessons in medicine that occurred in their office. Additionally, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work on an interesting research project with Dr. Peters, which taught me the nuts and bolts of clinical research. I saw how busy they were, but Dr. Peters sat down every week to discuss our project and gave me his time. I have only later come to realize how rare and unique that is.”

Dr. Peters, along with Meghan Haggerty, MD, an NROC doctor who was in her residency at the time, filled an important void — one that was a problem unique to the Class of 2013. “Being in the first class was a really special position to be in,” Dr. Churilla said. “We were able to leave our mark in a small way. But one thing we lacked were upperclassmen. We were the upperclassmen from day one. So that meant that we did not have classmates who knew about residency matching to share their insights. But I received plenty of advice from Drs. Peters and Haggerty about what to look for in a program, and [registrar] Ed Lahart kept us all on top of necessary paperwork. Ed made sure all the I’s were dotted and the T’s crossed. I was amazed as to how smoothly the whole application and match process went for the first time through.”

So aided, Dr. Churilla enjoyed a very successful Match Day in 2013. Just this year, he completed his residency in radiation oncology at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. He said he is delighted to return to where it all began — to Scranton; to Geisinger Commonwealth, where he will serve as clinical faculty; and to NROC, where he joins his former mentors as a new colleague. And he didn’t come home alone. Dr. Churilla returned with his wife, Tara Churilla, DO, a pediatrician who is also a Scranton native and a recent graduate of the pediatric residency program at the Bristol-Myers Squibb Children’s Hospital at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. She has signed on to practice at Pediatric Associates of Kingston.

“It was our dream to come back to the area and practice medicine,” Dr. Churilla said. “But I worried a bit about my academic interests — would I be able to pursue them? Now, with NROC and the School of Medicine, the answer is a resounding yes. I hope to use this opportunity to give back to our patients in northeast Pennsylvania and to the students at Geisinger Commonwealth.”
Tom Churilla