April 19, 2021, 1:50 p.m. David Mitchell — AuBree LaForce knew her playing days were numbered after two years of college basketball, but her actual career in athletics is just getting started.
“It was pretty clear I wasn’t going pro in women’s basketball,” quipped LaForce, who played guard for one season each at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and the University of Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio. “I decided to focus on the next chapter of my life.”
After graduating from Northeast Ohio Medical University (NEOMED) in Rootstown next month, LaForce’s next chapter will be continuing her training at the Family Medicine Residency Program at Cleveland Clinic Akron General. She was drawn to the program, in part, by sports medicine experiences she had there during a family medicine rotation last fall.
“I’m a big sports fan, and I would love to be a team doc for a local school,” LaForce said. “When you have three parents who are heavily involved in sports and two older siblings who played college sports, it becomes pretty engrained. It shaped me the into person I am today.”
LaForce’s sister Allie, a sideline reporter for Turner Sports, is married to Houston Astros pitcher Joe Smith. Her brother Jack was a linebacker on two national championship football teams at Mount Union. Their dad, Wade, played football at Wittenberg University, and mom Lesa played tennis and was a cheerleader at Kent State.
LaForce’s “third parent” is her aunt, Connie Rummell, a high school softball and basketball coach who lived with the family.
“From the time I could walk and talk, I was at all her practices,” said LaForce, who added that the lessons she learned playing sports will serve her well in medicine. “When I played point guard I had to communicate with my coaches and teammates, calling plays and telling everyone where to go and what to do. As a physician, I will communicate and collaborate with patients, staff and specialists. I’ve been training for family medicine my whole life.”
Two experiences with acute lymphoblastic leukemia sparked LaForce’s interest in medicine. Her cousin Blake was diagnosed with the disease when he was 16 and she was in seventh grade. He died two years later.
“We spent a lot of time in children’s hospitals,” LaForce said. “Seeing the impact the doctors and nurses had — not only on him but our entire family — shaped our view of the medical field. It was really inspiring.”
About a year after her cousin died, Ethan Kelly, the 3-year-old son of LaForce’s high school basketball coach, was diagnosed with the same disease. LaForce was the boy’s babysitter.
“In that moment I knew medicine was my calling,” she said. “I was able to use the little medical knowledge I had from my cousin’s journey — as well as the comfort, faith, hope and courage I had witnessed — and apply it to help teach and comfort the family of a little boy I loved. I knew that was a role I wanted to be in for the rest of my life.”
Kelly, now a teenager, is thriving and cancer-free.
LaForce went to medical school planning a career in pediatrics. A five-minute conversation with Janice Spalding, M.D., a professor of family and community medicine at NEOMED, changed her mind.
“She was talking with me about what I wanted in the future,” LaForce said. “She stopped me mid-sentence and said, ‘You’re a family doc.’”
What LaForce wants now is to be a small-town, full-scope family physician. She’s eager to reunite with mentors from her Akron rotation, including Deborah Plate, D.O., Chair of the Department of Family Medicine at Cleveland Clinic Akron General.
“She has a tremendous spunk and excitement for life and family medicine that is contagious,” LaForce said. “She’s who I want to be when I grow up.”
During that rotation, LaForce was a regular on the sidelines at high school football games with Aaron Lear, M.D., C.A.Q., who is residency faculty and associate professor of family and community medicine at NEOMED.
“That was incredible and something he didn’t have to do,” she said. “He allowed me to get firsthand experience in the sports world. I was like a kid in a candy store.”
LaForce said she was struck not only by Lear’s ability to treat injured athletes and answer her questions in real time but also by his connection to players and families.
“He knew the kids and what other sports they played,” she said. “He knew their older siblings and where they were going to college. He was a true member of their community, which was awesome to see.”
LaForce, who said she hasn’t turned down an opportunity since Spalding directed her to family medicine, hopes to help other medical students find their paths.
“I love family medicine with my whole heart,” said LaForce, the student chair of the National Conference of Family Medicine Residents and Medical Students. “It is the specialty that can do it all. Students entering medical school may not know what family medicine is in its full capacity. It’s my duty and honor to show other students what family medicine is and what it can be for them.”
LaForce also serves as a member of the AAFP Commission on Education and is the student member of the NEOMED Board of Trustees. She previously served the Ohio AFP as a delegate to the student congress at National Conference. This year’s virtual event, which is scheduled for July 29-31, will offer students a chance to connect with nearly 400 residency programs and choose from more than 30 workshops.
“I remember calling my family during my first National Conference, and I couldn’t stop talking about how awesome it was, all the fantastic people I was meeting and this opportunity and that opportunity,” she said. “It was clear very quicky that family medicine was the specialty for me, and I love to share that with younger students.”