All paths lead to medicine for Cecil man
Stephen Heirendt, who started his career as a volunteer emergency medical technician and eventually completed medical school, is working at Canonsburg General Hospital, the same hospital where his mother, Barbara Heirendt, has been a volunteer for years.
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When it comes to emergency medicine in the Pittsburgh region, few people have a wider range of experience than Stephen Heirendt.
The Cecil native started out as a volunteer emergency medical technician when he was a teenager, eventually became a nurse and, most recently, was hired as an emergency room doctor at Canonsburg General Hospital in his hometown of North Strabane.
He is working alongside his mother, Barbara Heirendt, who has been a volunteer in the hospital's emergency department for the past 10 years since she retired as an office manager.
At 38, Dr. Heirendt's career journey has been a long and winding one.
When he was 16, Dr. Heirendt worked as a volunteer firefighter with the Cecil Volunteer Fire Department, but he soon found his true talent was in emergency medical response, which was provided by the fire department.
Dr. Heirendt discovered his ability to keep a cool head even when a life-or-death drama was unfolding around him, such as a car accident or shooting.
"It was cool. It was interesting," he recalled. "It was a lot of action, obviously."
Dr. Heirendt obtained his certification as an EMT at the age of 17 and joined the Cecil Area Emergency Medical Services. His pager would go off at all hours, and it didn't matter whether he had a high school exam the next day or a date planned -- everything in his life took a backseat to this, his calling.
"I thought, if I don't go, who is going to go?" said Dr. Heirendt, who managed to maintain good grades and hold down a paying job while he worked as an EMT.
Watching her youngest of five children race out of the house to answer an emergency call in the middle of the night was a harrowing experience for his mother.
"It was always nerve-wracking, but that's what he loved," said Mrs. Heirendt, 71, who still lives in Cecil.
As the daughter of James Vaglia, the longtime chief of the Bridgeville Fire Department, she understood her son's calling and gave him a helicopter ride as his 16th birthday present. At the time, he wanted to become a helicopter pilot.
Dr. Heirendt graduated in 1992 from Canon-McMillan High School and became a paid paramedic while he obtained an associate degree in nursing from the Community College of Allegheny County.
Several years later, he graduated from CCAC but couldn't find a job right away in emergency medicine because he lacked experience in critical care.
That's when he made the decision to become a nationally certified paramedic through a pilot program being offered by the Center for Emergency Medicine in Oakland.
After earning that certification, he still couldn't seem to find a job that was the right fit. He wanted to work as a helicopter nurse for LifeFlight or as a paramedic, but nothing he tried seemed to suit him.
It was at that crossroads in his life when Dr. Heirendt saw an old friend who had worked as a physician's assistant before deciding to go back to school to become a doctor.
"He told me, 'Go for it all while you're still young,' " recalled Dr. Heirendt, who was 25 at the time.
Although he was gaining valuable experience as a nurse and paramedic, Dr. Heirendt, who had an associate degree, was a long way from what it would take to become a doctor.
He knew that taking that leap would require a Herculean commitment of both time and money -- four years to obtain a bachelor's degree, another four years to attend medical school and several more years in residency.
Even if he attended a public college, the average cost of medical school, not including undergraduate costs, is $150,000, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Dr. Heirendt decided to go for it. He continued working as a nurse full time to pay for his studies at the University of Pittsburgh, where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in emergency medicine in 2001.
After that, he enrolled at the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine but found the coursework too rigorous to continue working a full-time job at the same time.
He would drive home on the weekends to work at Canonsburg General Hospital, he said, "but medical school was too demanding."
By 2005, Dr. Heirendt obtained his medical degree and began his residency at Allegheny General Hospital. Three years later, he was finally able to put down the books and assess his life.
"At that point, I thought, 'I'm done! That's enough. I have to live life now,' " he said.
He married Erin, a licensed counselor for South Fayette School District. The two met while he was a resident at AGH.
He first job as a doctor was with Wheeling Medical Park, but the hourlong commute from their home in Chartiers started to bother him after a few years, especially when Erin became pregnant. The couple's daughter, Kaitlyn, is now 16 months old, and their second child is due in April.
"I figured that I was spending 400 hours on the road every year," he said. "I could've been at home all that time. So, I started looking around."
He got a job offer from The Washington Hospital and asked one of his former mentors, Jonathan Landis, to review the contract for him. But Dr. Landis, the medical director at Canonsburg General Hospital, had other ideas.
"I knew that he was a quality physician," said Dr. Landis, who instead offered Dr. Heirendt a position in the hospital's emergency department. "It was very fortuitous for both of us, and it worked out very well."
With his experience in emergency situations, Dr. Heirendt sometimes finds himself helping first-year doctors or residents.
"It's a learning experience," he said. "It's a little bit of a shocker for some people. I tell them to take a step back and look at what's going on and to remember what they've learned."
In the past 16 months since he was hired at Canonsburg, Dr. Landis said, Dr. Heirendt has made his mark.
"The patients love him," Dr. Landis said. "He does a very good job."
His mother is thrilled, too. Every Monday night, when the two work the same shift, she makes him his favorite meal -- homemade ravioli with homemade sauce. "She's a great cook," he said.
"I'm so proud of him," she said.
First Published January 24, 2013 6:27 am