Evan Eschker Masters the Art of Empathy
(and Good Italian Food)
By Ellen Fortini
Evan Eschker says he has been “technically pre-med since age eight.” A medical assistant at a family practice in Waterford, Michigan, the 22-year-old was inspired to a career in medicine as a child, having witnessed the challenges faced by his Aunt Julie, his mother’s sister, who lived with the effects of multiple sclerosis.
“Seeing her always sick, and with MS, it’s a very waxing and waning pathology,” he explains. “Sometimes she’d be up and walking and playing with me and other times she’d be blind and deaf in a wheelchair. It was just so aggressive.”
He recalls attending her physical therapy appointments and trips to the pharmacy as a child, as well as being drawn to the medical and science books in his elementary and middle school libraries. By the time he was in high school, Evan was taking part as a cadet in a co-op program with the local fire department.
He graduated in April 2021 from Oakland University (OU) in Rochester, Michigan with a degree in clinical diagnostic sciences. “If there is any type of fluid or tissue or something that doesn’t look right that comes out of you, I’m the lab,” he explains. “I run it through and see what’s going on, I slap a diagnosis on it, and send it back to the doctor.” His empathy for his patients and a desire to help them fully understand their diagnoses and how to improve upon them is how Evan chose this specialty. “I thought the lab aspect would be good background knowledge for me and my future patients, to make it less intimidating.”
Patients can rely on Evan to take their vital signs, check that their medication is filled and up- to-date, and to prep them for procedures. Additionally, he manages the practice’s clinical education portion for the University of Michigan Nurse Practitioner program, scheduling and approving hours and skills performed for students. He is currently applying to physician assistant (PA) programs himself to continue his education.
Evan says he initially planned to be a doctor, but a series of events in his personal life led him to consider another, not unconnected path.
In summer 2019, he spent three weeks in Italy as a surgical fellow at a hospital in Rome. He was able to shadow surgeons and surgeries, including a 17-hour mitral valve replacement, as well as experience the Italian culture – both medical and social – even learning to make homemade pasta. But while there, Evan realized that surgery wasn’t for him. “I knew I definitely still wanted to be in medicine, but I don’t love it enough to work my life away and be in school for another eight years,” he shares.
Then one morning in mid-January 2020, Evan was walking across the OU campus to his physics class when he was struck by an SUV while in a cross walk. In a flash, he remembers “helicoptering” across the hood and frame of the windshield, striking the car with his head, and being flung into the other lane, where he hit his head yet again.
At first, Evan couldn’t see a thing. But in a moment of clarity, he knew his father, Christopher, would implore him to recall details of the vehicle. So, through his tunnel vision and the darkness of the morning, Evan was able to note the make, model, and all but one digit of the license plate of the vehicle. “I reversed the last two digits,” he says, “and I still remember it to this day.”
He also remembers hearing the driver’s voice. She was saying, “Oh my gosh, I am so sorry, I am so sorry.”
Dazed and seeing stars, Evan knew he needed help. He told her, “I don’t think I can get up. Can you please help me get up?” But she didn’t. “She said one last ‘sorry’, and she took off,” he recalls. As the cross walk was on a one-way street, Evan thought maybe the driver was going to come back around the loop again and attend to him. But instead, she drove straight off campus and never returned.
Evan staggered to a fire hydrant and tried to make it to one of the blue-light police signals equipped on the OU campus. On his way there, he called his mother, Cheryl, who encouraged him to relax and stay put. When she asked, “How much damage is there to the truck?”, Evan realized he had not properly conveyed to her that he himself had been struck and that it wasn’t simply a fender bender. That was when he noticed the feeling of sand in his mouth, which turned out to be his fractured teeth that he spit out onto the sidewalk.
He reached the blue-light box, knowing the OU campus police department would respond immediately. “That’s when everything started to hurt,” Evan remembers. His head throbbing, he reached up to press the button and discovered his palm full of blood that had seeped through his winter hat.
“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?” he was asked.
“I think I got hit by a car,” Evan told the 9-1-1 operator. She replied, “You think you got hit by a car?” Realizing he sounded unsure of himself, Evan explained that he remembered crossing the crosswalk and that his head was now bleeding. That was enough to convince the operator to send emergency services immediately.
At the very same time, Cheryl called Christopher, who was at work right across the street from the accident site and was able to make it to Evan even before the fire department and three ambulances arrived.
Paramedics assessed Evan and told him he was stable enough to have Christopher transport him to the hospital a mile away. When they arrived, Evan was admitted to the neuro ICU where they did a full CT scan of his head. Doctors discovered a potential brain bleed but were unable to say if it was fresh from the accident or from a previous trauma. Evan was kept for observation and to run another CT scan eight hours later. In the meantime, he was checked every two hours by a nurse and “gave plenty of police statements.”
The second scan confirmed a brain bleed had happened at some point, but it hadn’t changed in size, so Evan was free to go. In addition to the bleeding from his head, many contusions, and a lot of soreness. “I’d say it felt like I got hit by a truck, but I did,” he jokes. He was diagnosed with a major concussion and cautioned that if his symptoms worsened to include nausea, vomiting, or headache, it could be considered a re-bleeding of the brain, and to come right back to the hospital. He was discharged the next day, nearly 20 hours after being hit.
Evan was off work for two weeks and was told no physical exertion for six months. He notes that he didn’t get his full energy back for two or three months after the accident. “It was almost like mono; I just felt so drained. Anything, even minute, like walking up a flight of stairs or across campus, would make me feel so exhausted,” he says. The head injury caused him to experience extensive fatigue, or malaise, which affected him once he returned to school and at work. Unfortunately, the time off pushed his graduation back by a semester.
“It’s not uncommon for survivors of brain injury to experience a derailment of their life plans,” says Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona’s Resource Facilitation Manager, Brittany Sweeney-Lawson. “Trying to deal with the demands of work, school, and relationships while often managing multiple symptoms is not something most of us are equipped to handle without support.” She notes that getting connected to the right resources and information can make all the difference.
For the better part of the next year, Evan and his parents began keeping meticulous notes and details of phone conversations as they collated files of information, medical bills, police reports, insurance claims, and more. Of course, soon after the accident, COVID-19 threw a wrench in the proceedings as the family kept all the information organized as best they could. The whole experience turned out to be fundamental to Evan adding “advocate” to his newly acquired titles.
“Up until the semester prior, I had planned on applying to medical school,” he says. “I planned on becoming a doctor and going to school the next eight years and then another three for residency. Then after [the accident] … you realize how short life is. It put it all into perspective and I decided I’d rather start enjoying life at 26 rather than at 34 by the time I’d be done with an MD.”
Evan is an only child and credits his parents for their support and guidance in the days and months following his medical treatment. Cheryl is a pharmacy tech and Christopher is the HR manager at an automotive company. He’s also the cousin of Carrie Collins-Fadell, Executive Director of the Brain Injury Alliance. “If it wasn’t for my parents, I would have been lost finding an attorney and dealing with hospital bills and all the stuff that normally happens after an accident,” Evan admits. “It keeps me open-minded now, the collateral of what happens with an accident outside of the actual trauma itself.”
But even the medical instructions received weren’t entirely clear to the medical student himself. “I was told to expect headache, nausea, and vomiting,” he says. “Then I was told those are the signs of a concussion but also the signs of a brain bleed and I would need to come back.” Evan acknowledges he is fortunate that since his boss at the clinic has been his family doctor since he was a baby, he has a relationship with her where he can count on a prompt response to a phone call or text.
He notes, too, that not everyone has access to the resources he did and recalls a recent patient who was hit by a car on her bicycle. Though she herself wasn’t physically hurt, she is now expecting medical bills. The problem is the patient is experiencing homelessness and doesn’t have a fixed address where she can receive bills and manage them.
“There are whole populations of underprivileged people on the medical fringes that are hard to reach,” he says. “It would have been nice to have a social worker to try and arrange care management or a follow up to organize everything.”
Motor vehicle accident patients routinely receive a standard examination protocol when they arrive at Evan’s clinic–injuries, ranges of motion, current pain level, etc.–as documentation for future legal cases or treatments such as physical therapy. But now, due to Evan’s experience, he is able to offer insight and recommendations that patients or their family may not have considered or even thought of in the moments following a trauma.
“I tell them, get a folder and get a lot of bookmarks, because you’re going to need to know a lot of names, phone numbers, and contact information, and get someplace you can remember to keep all of it,” he urges. “It’s the same thing for the criminal aspect of it and definitely the hospital bills, too. Ask for business cards of every doctor you see in the hospital and know who represents you at the state level. Track the date you receive a bill and the date you last called about it.”
He also shares with his patients the importance of having created a written statement to share with the other party’s insurance and attorneys who contacted him directly for statements, trying to catch a mistake with a word or a different description. Instead, he directed them to the OU police department whom he had given permission to copy and share his standard statement. “Make sure you have down what happened and remember it,” Evan cautions. “If you make any type of slip, like the color of the car or how fast they were going, the little nuances, they are going to grill you about it.”
Evan also says he made sure to immediately find and block the driver from his social media, to avoid any direct contact. She was a freshman at OU and once the police department tracked her down, she was placed on academic probation and asked by the school administration to write a letter of apology to Evan. She received three misdemeanors and an $8,700 fine. “Originally, she asked to have the entire thing expunged, everything dropped,” Evan says. “She told the police that I said I was completely fine and that she could go on her way. If anything, I asked for more than just a little help. I am six-foot-six and pretty hard to miss in the street.”
When the state representative called to confirm these details, which Evan denied, the family requested the driver complete 2,000 hours of community service, which they specifically requested would be geared towards learning empathy. Evan says that her options included working in a state soup kitchen, at a shelter, and participating with Habitat for Humanity. The family also agreed that if she has no tickets or misdemeanors in the next two years, one of the charges will be dropped off her record.
“We’re not trying to ruin the girl’s life,” Evan explains. “She probably just panicked and fled the scene, not knowing what to do. But hopefully now she knows to at least get out of the car. She told the police that she was distracted because she was adjusting the heat in her car but come on, just say you were texting.”
Now almost two years after the accident, Evan and his girlfriend Janelle, and their new puppy, a golden retriever named Jalapeño, are looking forward to a new chapter, which hopefully will include PA school for Evan. “My mother always reminds me not to sell myself short,” he says. “It’s just all so exciting to see where the next part of my life can take me.”
Outside of his studies and the clinic, Evan describes himself as a “pioneer home chef” and speaks confidently of his Italian cooking abilities (a strong factor in his decision to study in Rome), specifically his authentic homemade spinach and ricotta-stuffed tortellini, as well as chicken and gnocchi soup. “[Cooking] is my de-stressor and my favorite thing to do,” he claims. “I love going to work because I get to see everything I want to do for the rest of my life, and then when I get home, we can cook something fun. But doing dishes I hate, so thankfully Janelle loves doing dishes. We balance each other out. She loves the food and I love that I don’t have to do the dishes after.”
The budding chef has also been published eight-times published for his work in exercise science and wellness and health promotion. “I call myself a research phlebotomist,” he says of his OU lab degree expertise. “Any professor that needs human blood collected, I have all the certifications for it, and I go through all the research and lab safety. So, my name goes on the paper if I do the work for it.” He explains he draws the blood, processes it, and even formats it properly for the researcher to share in their dissertation or publication, including his latest in the International Journal of Exercise Science.
Another research he participated in was on the development of new blood vessels in the brain, specifically for head-on trauma. “This was a foreshadowing event, apparently, from my freshman year,” he says, and explains that it was also when he realized how resilient the brain is.
“The study monitored how fast blood vessels return to a damaged area of the brain after a stroke, or more specifically, a motor vehicle-induced stroke. Someone who has a hemispherectomy for epilepsy treatment, you can take the midline divider right out and it will still function,” he shares. “Lobectomy for cancer, taking out tumors, or babies born with only half a brain, it can still fully function in limited capacities.”
A lifelong passion for scientific knowledge combined with a deep compassion for humanity make Evan Eschker a consummate medical professional. His concern extends to his patients, peers, and generously to the driver who caused the accident, too. He encourages others to be more open-minded.
“There’s evil in the world, but it could just be a terrified teenager already going through a lot,” he says. “They probably also wish it didn’t happen. The world isn’t that full of bad people.”
*Ellen Fortini is a globetrotting writer, editor, and public relations professional. She currently resides in Las Vegas, Nevada.
ABOUT BRAIN INJURY ALLIANCE OF ARIZONA
The Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona (BIAAZ) is the only statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of adults and children with all types of brain injuries through prevention, advocacy, awareness and education. BIAAZ also houses the Arizona Brain Health Resource Center, a collection of educational information and neuro-specific resources for brain injury survivors, caregivers, family members and professionals.
What began in 1983 as a grassroots effort has grown into a strong statewide presence, providing valuable life-long resources and community support for individuals with all types of brain trauma at no charge.
The Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona:
- Works with Congressional Brain Injury Task Force
- Houses Arizona Brain Health Resource Center
- Hosts Statewide Opioid Use Disorder & Cognitive Impairment Workgroup
- Has Statewide Opioid Use Disorder & Cognitive Impairment Response team with peer support, training, and family wraparound services
- Facilitates Brain Health Advisory Council
- Manages statewide Neuro Info-Line: 888-500-9165