As Long-Time Leader Retires, World-Class Medical Education Center Stays True to Mission

Ask Mara McErlean, MD, what she’s enjoyed most about her more than 30 years at Albany Medical Center and you’ll get an answer that tells the true story of the impact she’s had on Albany Medical Center, Albany Medical College and all those who have met her.

“I’ve always enjoyed the one-on-one time teaching,” Dr. McErlean says. “I know that because of good training at Albany Medical Center, medical students and residents went out and provided excellent care to thousands of patients.”

After coming to Albany Medical Center in 1988 upon completion of her residency at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, Dr. McErlean excelled in responsibilities throughout the Department of Emergency Medicine leading up to her appointment as department chair in 2002. After eight years in the role, she stepped away from Albany Medical Center to focus on her personal life as well as to identify the next challenge in her career. That challenge came in 2013 when she decided to return to Albany Medical Center, accepting the role as head of the Patient Safety and Clinical Competency Center, a simulation and training center within the Medical College that opened in 2011.

Dr. McErlean is now retiring from that role after transformative work that has catapulted the center into a model for medical education.

“I worked for many years with Dr. McErlean in the Emergency Department and always appreciated her leadership, specifically in the most critical of times,” said Cathy Manjunath, who transitioned from the emergency department to work with Dr. McErlean as the center’s Director of Simulation Technology Education. “Dr. McErlean gave 110% at all times. No matter the ask she would always do the impossible to make it happen.”

Annette Grajny, MD ‘04 has now become the Medical Director for the Center and holds the primary responsibility for shaping curriculum for learners. In 2011, Dr. McErlean became her manager as Dr. Grajny worked as an attending physician. Looking back on her accomplishments at Albany Medical Center, Dr. Grajny says Dr. McErlean is nothing short of a legend.

“She worked harder than anyone has ever known,” Dr. Grajny says.

Take a walk through the PSCCC and you’ll find opportunities galore for future medical professionals to gain the training they need to be successful. In fact, Dr. McErlean is a primary reason why you can walk through the center, as she established policies that allowed for increased access to the resources inside the training area.

Dr. McErlean says a main responsibility during her time was to enhance the education of medical students and to prepare them for their careers.

“What’s important is we’ve created a place, and a group of people, who are able to do that training whether I’m here or not,” Dr. McErlean says. “And they complete that training with a very high level of expertise.”

Along with providing opportunities to gain hands-on experience using lifelike manikins and state-of-the-art training tools, students have the ability to practice with standardized patients, or SP’s, who receive extensive training on how, in a simulated environment, to portray a patient or family member seeking medical care. The standardized patient program is just one of many examples of a program that has expanded and thrived in recent years at the center.

In 2020, however, these types of learning opportunities were put on hold or limited for a short time at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Dr. McErlean says having to put limits on the training for students was a clear example of the important role the center plays in the education of medical students.

“For a short time, we closed the door and lost that communication with a real person. We needed to quickly find ways to supplement that education and do things differently,” Dr. McErlean says, adding that they made the transition and adapted while ensuring the safety of learners, standardized patients and staff, and while moving forward with important curriculum and training opportunities.

Part of that adaptation, Dr. Grajny says, was tackling the emergence of telemedicine by introducing virtual sessions and adapting to the changing landscape in medicine.

The center’s value in medical education has never been clearer and the mission of continuing that work now falls, in part, to Dr. Grajny. It should be noted that the center’s work, while critical to the education of medical students, also includes training for nurses, chaplains and anyone seeking to enhance their experience and training.

“The mission is to make the center and the education as good as it can possibly be for all of our learners,” Dr. Grajny says.

Another key player in the sustained success of the PSCCC will be Heather Frenz, who has been affiliated with the center for 21 years. Frenz, whose background as an actor led her to train to become a standardized patient, is now the executive director in charge of day-to-day operations ranging from scheduling to ensuring that protocols are followed.

“Working with learners is invigorating,” Frenz says. “They come to me and say, ‘Can we do this?’ And, I have these opportunities to say yes. The sky is the limit.”

As the center’s new leaders are already running at full speed in their roles, they are also aware that Dr. McErlean, the center’s departing leader, deserves credit for current and future success.

“She is the gold standard,” Dr. Grajny says. “Her footprint on the center, and on Albany Medical Center, is not going to go unnoticed.”