Appalachian alumnus follows vigorous path to Johns Hopkins Hospital clinical cardiac electrophysiology fellowship

The rigors of balancing academics and athletics as an undergraduate gave Dr. Zachary Hollis ’02 the foundation to make well-informed career decisions, he said. The mental toughness he developed served him well during the past 14 years as he forged an advanced medical career to become a clinical cardiac electrophysiology fellow at The Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Hollis has two more years before he completes his fellowship. Cardiac electrophysiologists focus on the heart’s timing and on diagnosing and treating irregular heartbeats or arrhythmias.

His career path was not an obvious one. After graduating from Appalachian State University where he majored in exercise science and ran cross-country and track, Hollis said he was turned down for a job as an exercise physiologist at Wake Forest University. But, he was offered a position at the Wake Forest School of Medicine as a computer electrocardiogram specialist, coding and reading ECGs as well as presenting research study guidelines.

With this initial opportunity, he began to realize a growing interest in the clinical side of medicine. He left Wake Forest for a position as a cardiac electrophysiology technologist at Duke University Health System, moved on to medical school at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a three-year residency in internal medicine at the University of Wisconsin. Hollis continued his training with a three-year fellowship as a cardiovascular medicine fellow at the University of Wisconsin. He worked there until earlier this year when he began his fellowship at The Johns Hopkins Hospital.

An Appalachian beginning

Hollis came to Boone from Petersburg, Illinois, saying he was drawn to Appalachian for its cross-country and track program and the beauty of the area.

“I loved the environment – the national parks and the trails that course through them, especially from a distance runner’s standpoint,” he said. “I wanted to go to a larger school. Appalachian State was large enough to provide a great educational experience. At the same time, it had the unique ability to simultaneously be small enough that it felt like family. I think it is a reflection of the type of faculty and student body encompassed there.”

Being a student-athlete was challenging, he added, “but dedicating yourself to athletics helps one learn to organize, prioritize and mature. We are capable of more than we initially realize.” As a student-athlete, Hollis was plagued by several season-ending injuries. “I had a lot of support from teammates and my track coaches, Mike Curcio and John Weaver, encouraging me to keep pushing, keep my head up,” he said. Though the physical challenges were difficult to shoulder, Hollis said he feels he gained mental toughness and character that have served him well since.

As for his academic experience at Appalachian, Hollis wrote, “The pre-professional exercise science degree has echoed throughout my long road of medical training. This was not just limited to the didactic. Interpersonal skills such as patient communication we as exercise science students learned have benefited me since beginning medical school training. Clinical skills such as stress testing and ECG comprehension turned out to lay a fortuitous foundation for a career in cardiovascular medicine. The exercise science program at Appalachian State allowed and encouraged me to explore different areas of healthcare, which ultimately led me to a career in cardiac electrophysiology.”

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