KGI Honors American Heart Month with MSPA Student Julie Hannawi While Advocating for Delivering Patient-Centered Care to Underrepresented Populations 

Keck Graduate Institute (KGI), a leader in innovative healthcare and bioscience education, has a new personal reason to celebrate American Heart Month. Julie Hannawi, a first-year student in KGI’s Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies (MSPA) program, brings firsthand experience of what it’s like to struggle with heart health to her cohort. 

Hannawi, MSPA ’25, was born with a rare heart defect called congenitally corrected transposition of the great arteries (CCTGA). The heart’s left ventricle typically sends blood to the entire body, while the right ventricle sends blood to the lungs.  

For an individual with CCTGA, though, the roles are reversed. This means the more muscular left ventricle pumps blood to the lungs, while the weaker right ventricle pumps blood to the rest of the body. This puts a lot of physiological stress on the body, resulting in symptoms such as fatigue and heart palpitations. 

“Early on, I was thrust into the world of medicine,” Hannawi said. 

For her parents, both Syrian immigrants, navigating the American healthcare system proved challenging. Hannawi said,  

“I had to take matters into my own hands and learn how to advocate for myself.”

“Fortunately, I found a group of physicians, physician associate/assistants (PAs), and nurse practitioners who worked with me and answered my questions.” 

When Hannawi was 21 years old, her condition worsened, requiring valve replacement surgery. 

As difficult as these experiences were, they demonstrated compassion and clear communication’s vital role in the healthcare profession. In the anxiety-ridden months following her surgery, Hannawi always had a PA or cardiologist on standby to talk her through any symptoms she was experiencing and assess whether she required hospitalization. 

At the same time, Hannawi’s experiences have opened her eyes to healthcare disparities within her community. She has also observed a lack of trust in the healthcare system, leading to preventable conditions. A desire to bridge this gap is one of Hannawi’s primary motivations for pursuing a career as a PA. 

“You don’t see many Middle Eastern doctors or PAs,” Hannawi said. “My community needs a familiar face to break through those barriers.” 

She was also inspired to follow in the footsteps of the providers who helped her navigate her considerable challenges with a combination of empathy and education.  

Hannawi got her start as a pain management scribe before working in orthopedics. 

“These positions involved having tough conversations with patients,” Hannawi said. “But from my own experiences, I understood what it takes to help patients feel comfortable.” 

As a COPE Health Scholar, she helped patients—many with chronic fractures—in the Med-Surg unit of Adventist Health in Glendale, helping them bathe and engaging them in conversation. 

“This experience gave me a foundation in all a patient’s needs, which is not limited to physical care but also includes emotional support,” Hannawi said. “Many of them were isolated, and their morale was low. I saw how important it was to be there for them authentically.” 

When looking at PA programs, KGI’s program immediately stood out to her. Their mission aligns with Hannawi’s goals of providing compassionate care and diversifying the PA profession, which will help to improve health outcomes among underrepresented populations. 

“My main reason for choosing KGI had a lot to do with the faculty and the implications of holding diversity and patient-centered care to such high standards,” Hannawi said. “It’s not just about who is allowed in the exam room, but who is helping make the decisions and how well we align a patient’s wants and needs by their own story.” 

According to MSPA Program Director Dr. Christy Eskes, one of the program’s hallmarks is its focus on holistic care and community health. 

“Our patients are not just their disease or their symptoms, but someone with a story,” Eskes said. “We must understand who they are and where they’re coming from. This involves a deep dive into the social determinants of health.” 

Eskes and other faculty in the MSPA program equip students with the tools to support their patients and advocate for their communities fully. For their next project, students will research these specific communities to comprehensively understand various factors impacting health, such as access to healthcare education, financial stability, and structural and institutional racism. 

“As providers, we must approach patient encounters with humility, understanding that we should not try to impose our viewpoints on patients but rather collaborate with them to improve their care,” Eskes said. “That’s one of the main qualities we consider when screening applicants for our program. Someone like Julie, who grew up in a community that has traditionally experienced significant challenges in the healthcare arena and is motivated to tackle these challenges, is an ideal fit.” 

These qualities led Hannawi to receive the program’s $5,000 Jump Start scholarship, awarded to students with exceptional determination and commitment to making a difference. 

When it comes to heart health, the MSPA curriculum focuses on the treatment and prevention of heart disease. Prevention goes beyond giving one-size-fits-all recommendations regarding diet and exercise. 

“One of the biggest changes I’m seeing since I started as a PA 20 years ago is that the focus has shifted from aiming for perfect heart health to making small, incremental changes to improve overall health and well-being,” Eskes said. “This involves working with patients to determine what’s feasible given their situation. For example, their neighborhood may be unsafe to walk in, or they may be limited by finances or access to grocery stores when it comes to eating a heart-healthy diet.” 

MSPA students are trained to collaborate with patients to devise a realistic plan that will ultimately prevent or minimize the impact of heart disease over time. 

Hannawi appreciates the consistent reinforcement from Eskes and other faculty that their patients are dynamic individuals. Providing holistic care means considering a patient’s environment and life experiences. 

“We still have internal biases as providers, but the program provides us with a strong foundation to help us overcome these biases,” Hannawi said. “I also appreciate the collaborative atmosphere. Our cohort is a very diverse group, and everyone brings in their unique experiences. We all learn from each other.” 

Recently, KGI’s MSPA program received a generous gift from the family of Tony and Virginia Chan, the owners of ABC Pharmacies and dedicated supporters of KGI. This gift elevates the program by enabling leaders to develop new clinical partnerships and enhance simulation facilities and additional technology. 

Are you ready to join the next generation of compassionate PAs and play a vital role in achieving more equitable healthcare? KGI’s MSPA program is going to begin accepting applications for the Fall 2025 cohort at the end of April this year. Go here to learn more.