By Wendy Sarubbi | May 8, 2019 11:09 am

Before medical school, Jason Smith was a corporate investigator who helped catch thieves, “but at the end of the day, I’d go home and those people would stick with me and I’d wonder, ‘Am I really making a difference in the world?’ ”

On May 17, he will begin making that difference – as a UCF-trained psychiatrist helping mentally ill people find peace.

Smith didn’t follow a traditional path to the College of Medicine. He’d dropped out of college, was a casino dealer, and worked up the ranks in security, risk management and legal compliance at Walmart. He helped make hundreds of arrests for retail theft, went undercover to catch thieves, and said putting together a criminal case – like a puzzle – was his favorite part of the job. But after six years leading security efforts at the nation’s giant retailer, he decided to pursue “something more meaningful:” his childhood dream to become a doctor. He used his Walmart 401K for tuition, went back to college, finished a pre-med major in just 18 months, and earned admission to three medical schools. He will graduate with his UCF M.D. degree at age 38.

He thought “the medical school door might be closed to me” because he wasn’t successful in his first attempt at college. “But if you have the desire and determination, you can succeed,” he said. “You still have the ability to make it.”

He came to medical school interested in genetics and biomarkers – something that fit his love of biology and chemistry. But then he did his third-year psychiatry clerkship at the Orlando VA Medical Center. “I saw the connection you have with patients,” he said, “You see as they transform through treatment from being so distressed to being able to find comfort once again.” So he decided to pursue psychiatry as his specialty. In June, he will enter UCF’s new Psychiatry Residency Program in collaboration with HCA Healthcare, where he’ll care for patients at Osceola Regional Medical Center and again at the Orlando VA.

Smith said he’s thrilled to help build the year-old program and so is his faculty advisor, Dr. Martin Klapheke, UCF’s assistant dean for medical education, a psychiatrist by training, and the residency’s program director.

“Jason felt a natural fit with members of the VA’s interdisciplinary treatment team and he found helping patients improve their mental health to be extremely rewarding,” Dr. Klapheke said. “His commitment and dedication to serve others help make him a good fit with our new program, which hopes to make a major impact on mental healthcare in Central Florida.”

Dr. Klapheke noted that Smith helped others throughout his medical school career. He volunteered at the KNIGHTS student-run free clinic for the underserved and based on his academic performance was selected as an academic coach for his medical school peers, providing individual, small and large group tutoring in subjects including pharmacology, biochemistry, genetics and anatomy.

VA patients often thanked Smith for his patient listening skills and calm, reassuring demeanor. He says he developed those traits during his security career. People caught stealing – whether they are Walmart workers or shoppers – are upset, fearful, angry. He’s been threatened and had to wrestle people to the ground. His undercover work led police to arrest a gang that was stealing Blu-ray DVDs from retail outlets throughout a city in Georgia. The thieves got $3 for each DVD they stole and gave to a store owner, who then sold them for full price. Smith says he may ultimately combine psychiatry with criminal justice by seeking a forensic psychiatry fellowship after his four-year residency training.

In the meantime, Smith wants to help remove the stigma of mental illness and help people understand that seeking help isn’t a sign of weakness. He grew up in the tiny rural community of Elton, Louisiana, which had only one part-time family medicine physician. He’s seen the impact of poverty and healthcare disparities, people who stole to get money to feed their alcohol and drug addictions, those who wanted and needed mental health counseling, but couldn’t find or afford it.

“Once I complete my training, I’ll almost certainly be the first psychiatrist from Elton,” he said. “I know there will be a lot of questions. I hope I can help de-mystify mental health treatment, help people understand that mental illness – like physical illness – can happen to anybody. I’ll tell them my job is to help people get through a tough time in their lives, to help find answers and treatment.”

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