Disaster struck his freshman year as Anthony Zaitsev was preparing to try out for the varsity wrestling team at Cumberland Valley High School.
The Hampden Township youth had been active in the sport since elementary school and once thought he could attend college on an athletic scholarship.
But all that changed just three days into the 2014 season during a warmup match with another boy who lacked experience but had plenty of strength.
Before it was over, Zaitsev suffered a severe concussion, a torn ligament and a broken leg. The injuries convinced him to quit one passion only to bounce back in pursuit of another.
“My goal is to be a doctor,” said Zaitsev, now 18 and a high school senior. Three years after a major setback disrupted his life the prognosis looks good for a future degree in biomedical engineering and eventually a practice as an orthopedic surgeon.
“I just developed an interest in repairing fellow athletes,” said Zaitsev recalling how this fascination began with the tendency of wrestlers to develop injuries. “My coaches and teammates recognized that I was a bright person.”
An ambition born
Once a coach came up to Zaitsev and told him bluntly “You’re smart. ... You could fix the team someday.” That particular role model was recovering from surgery to repair the nose he had broken several times.
When Zaitsev suffered his own injuries, the notion of studying to become a doctor became a very real ambition. Curious, he quizzed every specialist involved in his treatment and recovery and they were happy to share some insight.
Bouncing back was difficult — the toughest challenge Zaitsev ever faced. The nature of his injuries meant days missing class not to mention the difficulty he had in staying focused through a series of migraine headaches and other symptoms.
“It was a very long and painful experience,” Zaitsev said. “The hardest part was going back over and relearning everything. I had to take so many tests and make up so many lessons.”
He could have decided to give up and slack off, but Zaitsev came back and recovered with help from his parents and teachers. He is ranked within the top 20 students of the 2018 Class of 593 seniors.
Not only has Zaitsev excelled in school, he is taking advantage of side opportunities to explore the healthcare field and to prepare for the next stage after graduation.
In his junior and senior years, Zaitsev enrolled in the 10-week PULSE program offered in the fall by the Penn State Hershey Medical Center. Every Monday after school, he went to the hospital in Derry Township, Dauphin County, to hear a physician give a lecture on a medical topic.
After each lecture, Zaitsev worked closely with medical students on case studies that explored the techniques used to diagnose a patient and develop a treatment plan.
This past summer Zaitsev took the initiative to job shadow a local rheumatologist at work for about 25 hours. He took notes as she briefed him about the case history of each patient and the approach she planned to take to treat the person. He observed how the specialist interacted with the public and administered injections and other treatments.
“It was really neat,” Zaitsev said. “It was something invaluable to me. Being able to leave the classroom and learn directly from a medical professional, you don’t get to experience that every day.” A rheumatologist specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of musculoskeletal diseases and systemic autoimmune conditions.
Zaitsev also participated in a summer internship program through Pinnacle Health where he had the opportunity to work in the lab that sterilized medical equipment between uses. “It involved more than just cleaning,” he said. “It involved delivering the equipment throughout the hospital. I learned how to interact with patients at the professional level.”
He has learned life lessons in other ways. The past two summers, Zaitsev participated in mission trips to Maine organized through the Camp Hill Presbyterian Church. The goal of each trip was to repair homes that were damaged by the heavy snow and extreme weather conditions of a harsh New England winter.
“We were there helping people who can’t afford their own repairs,” Zaitsev said. “This summer we built an entire roof for a mobile home. The flat roof was very leaky and not designed to be in Maine.” Mission workers built a peaked wooden frame and covered it over in metal sheeting before installing it over the flat roof.
“It got me out of my comfort zone,” said Zaitsev noting how he spent a lot of time about nine feet off the ground. “It started getting scary sitting on the edge leaning over.
“It was definitely a very enlightening experience,” he added. “Sometimes I feel like I am trapped in my own bubble here living the good life. I don’t always get to experience what other people are experiencing. You see the other side of the world…It’s a broader view.”
Zaitsev is the first person in his family to be born in the U.S. His parents are ethnic Russians who came to this country from the Ukraine in the 1990s. Last year Zaitsev started a Russian Club to spread his language, culture and traditions to other students.
“I wanted to break the stigma,” Zaitsev said. “You always the Russians are the bad guys in movies. I’m a good guy.”
Recently club members saw the superhero movie The Guardians – a Russian film version of the Avengers dubbed over in English. Each hero represented a different nationality of the former Soviet Union.