Years ago, Karen Krok ’93 wrote the answer to the simple grade school question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” But unlike many young dreamers, Karen never changed course.
“I’m a transplant hepatologist,” she explains, “which means that I specialize in taking care of patients before and after a liver transplant. I’m also a gastroenterologist and Director of the Gastroenterology and Hepatology Fellowship at Hershey Medical Center.”
In a word, Karen is a doctor.
The notion was planted long ago when, as a child, Karen experienced health issues associated with her kidneys and benefitted from the competence and kindness of renal surgeons. “I decided to become a doctor because of my issues when I was a kid, and I wanted to help people in the same way. Thank goodness it worked out,” she laughs. “I didn’t have a plan B!”
Karen grew up in Overbrook Park in West Philadelphia, on the border of Philadelphia and Havertown. As she approached high school, her parents sought alternatives to the Philadelphia public school system. “I came from a lower middle class family and I applied for financial aid,” she explains. “It was important to me that I go somewhere that I fit in. At Shipley, I felt no pretentiousness as I walked around. Everyone was equal. There was a palpable difference there that I could recognize even in eighth grade.” Karen enrolled in Shipley without ever looking back.
Learning Skills for Life
Karen attributes her education at Shipley with cementing many of the essential skills she relied upon later in school and in her career. “Shipley was very academically rigorous. My mom used to think I was going to break my back carrying my backpack,” Karen recalls laughing. Maybe so, but she seemed to have put those books to excellent use. “I was able to take many AP courses at Shipley so that I was able to gain college credit at Franklin and Marshall, which was nice. In general, my first semester in college seemed relatively easy because I was accustomed to being so challenged.”
Cross It Off With a Ruler
Both commuting to and participating fully in Shipley’s academics and activities forced Karen to be extremely organized. “I had to get up at 6:15 am for a forty-minute ride on a Septa bus. I had all my work to do and I was always involved in after-school activities,” she explains. “I was in the high school play. I was in theater. I was the editor of the newspaper.”
Karen was notorious for her organizational skills, to the point where her friends still chide her today. “In order to cross something off on my planner,” she admits, “I would actually take my ruler and cross it off. I’m not that bad any more,” she promises quickly, “but some of my friends will still bring that up when I see them.”
The Value of Mentorship
To Karen, Shipley was a place where she could observe and emulate others. She could find mentors and role models among the faculty and staff. “Dr. Morinelli was a person you wanted to be like. You wanted to make him proud. You wanted to be more like him,” she says. “I remember going Ms. Wampler’s husband’s theater shows and her coming to mine. And Mrs. Greenwood,” she recalls with great fondness and admiration, “I worked so closely with her on the Beacon. She went out of her way to help you succeed. It made me want to help someone else succeed.”
So Many Favorites
Karen can’t stop listing favorite teachers. She speaks quickly so as not to miss anyone, yet is certain she is forgetting so many. “Mr. Drake,” she says, “Mrs. Jaffe. Dr. Stokes—he was the math teacher. His train would arrive at the same time as my bus and we would have very interesting conversations as we walked to school. His mind is still a mystery and inspiration to me! Mr. Wrangham gave us a Time Magazine and taught us about current events.”
Teaching in Practice
Karen has taken the lessons of her mentors to heart and has become a mentor and a teacher herself, serving as the Director of the Gastroenterology and Hepatology Fellowship and Professor of Medicine at Penn State Health's Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. “I think that as physicians,” she says thoughtfully, “we have a duty to train those people who are coming behind us to produce the best students that we can.” Karen felt she excelled at working with medical students and residents. “I was involved in mentoring medical students. So much in medicine is ‘try this med and see how it works in three months.’ Teaching, on the other hand, can be an immediate gratification. Students are very hungry for people who are good at teaching and you can see them use their skills immediately. I get a great sense of fulfillment.”
Perhaps one of the most difficult and fulfilling areas of Karen’s job is patient care. Though Shipley’s Social, Emotional, and Ethical Development (SEED) program was not fully formalized when she attended back in the early ’90s, the basic elements for character building and emotional intelligence curriculum were in place.
Karen likes to be on the same level as her patients, often sitting and holding their hand as she speaks to them. “When I lose a patient, those days are hard because you have to continue rounding. The day that I don’t have tears well up in my eyes is the day that I should probably get out of this. If you become hardened, you lose the humanistic feel that a physician should have.”
Gratitude and Giving
When it comes to giving back to Shipley, Karen does it the way she does many things in life, in an organized fashion and with clear and concise reasoning. “I give to Shipley because Shipley gave a lot to me,” she says plainly. “Shipley offered me opportunities that I never would have had had I not attended. I made lasting friendships with classmates and teachers. The skills that I got at Shipley, the organizational skills, the striving to do my best, I still use those every day. I had phenomenal teachers and I try to be like them. I try to emulate them in my teaching. Just the other day I was talking to a family who was moving to Lower Merion and I told them they HAVE to look at Shipley. There just isn’t another place like it.”
“In a way,” she says with a tinge of emotion in her voice, “Shipley made me who I am. The School helped mold me. And hopefully,” she pauses, “another student like me will get an opportunity to go there as well.”