Portrait of Erik Stiles in his white coat
Erik Stiles, photo by Sarah Schaub

If all goes as planned, Coug Nurse Erik Stiles will become Coug Doctor Erik Stiles in 2021. 

Stiles graduated from the WSU College of Nursing in 2010 and worked as a nurse for more than four years. Now he’s back on the WSU Spokane campus as part of the first class of the WSU Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine.

Stiles, 30, said he felt successful and fulfilled in his nursing career. The Lacey, Washington, native worked at UW Medical Center in Seattle, including stints in the cardiac intensive care unit and as a transplant coordinator. His mother and his aunt both graduated from the WSU College of Nursing, back when it was called the Intercollegiate Center for Nursing Education.

But he was always curious about medicine, he said. He took some classes at UW, then pursued a master’s degree in medical physiology at Loyola University Chicago to pick up the prerequisites he needed to apply to med school.

He was evaluating various schools when he flew back to the Inland Northwest to volunteer at Camp Stix, an annual tradition begun when he was a WSU nursing student. The camp medical director told him WSU’s new medical school was moving quickly toward preliminary accreditation and would be taking applications soon.

“During the whole application process it was a little like pulling teeth, thinking about different medical schools and how I might match up with some of these institutions’ missions,” Stiles said. “But it was just butter when it came to WSU, it fit so perfectly. WSU is who I am.”

He knew the campus, the culture, and some of the faculty and staff. More importantly, though, “the biggest thing I was looking for, and what WSU nails, is patient-centered medicine. That speaks to my education in nursing,” he said.

The College of Nursing’s holistic focus taught him, for example, that someone isn’t a diabetic – they’re a person with diabetes.

“It’s the little distinctions that make all the difference,” Stiles said. “That’s who I was as a nurse, and that’s who I plan on being as a physician.”

He is one of a relatively small group of people with an undergraduate degree in nursing who apply to medical school each year – according to the American Association of Medical Colleges, an average of 250 such students applied annually from 2014 through 2017.

Dr. John Tomkowiak, founding dean of the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, said, “Medical students who have nursing backgrounds bring some unique advantages that align well with the mission of the college. We are training our medical students to have a patient-centered approach to care, and this comes very naturally to those with nursing backgrounds as they often have a lot of experience interacting with patients on a personal level. In addition, they come with an appreciation for the health care environment and, more specifically, they understand the way health care teams should work together for the benefit of the patient.”

Stiles believes his experience as a nurse will make him a better doctor. The physician has historically been at the top of a hierarchy of caregivers, he said, but “it’s not the doctor carrying the patient all the way through the disease, it’s a whole team of people. I want to be that person to empower each and every one of them to step forward and make the best contribution to that patient’s health.”

–Story by Addy Hatch