Red badge of courage: Fort Bragg physician assistants serve with distinction
October 22, 2010
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - "If you don't want to take care of America's sons and daughters in harms way, don't apply."
That was the response given to Capt. Jennifer Dempsey on the day she applied for the Interservice Physician Assistant Program.
Dempsey came from a Family of five children, so trading the isolation of a medical lab for the commotion of an Army clinic seemed like a suitable next step in her Army career. And as a deployed Soldier at the time, Dempsey already knew the dangers of combat. She'd heard about the rigorous program (students often study five hours a night and on weekends), the detailed curriculum (classes include cardiology, emergency medicine, pulmonology and behavioral medicine), and the patient responsibility that comes with being a PA. But little did Dempsey realize what a rewarding career she'd chosen.
"A lot of times PAs work with Soldiers - when they go on a jump, you go; when they go to the range, you go," said Dempsey, who now works as a PA for 36th Air Support Medical Company, 44th Medical Brigade, and plans to specialize in orthopedics or emergency medicine.
Dempsey joined a growing number of Soldiers who are committed to serving both their country and compatriots. Since the Iraq war, the Army has doubled its cadre of PAs, with more entering the ranks every year. On Fort Bragg, PAs provide primary health care for Soldiers and their Family members, often taking the place of licensed physicians in clinics and in the field. On a typical day, a PA can record medical histories, perform physical exams, treat patient illnesses, assist surgeons and promote the health of the installation.
"I liked that they have more autonomy, I liked that they have more responsibility," said Maj. Winnie Peterson, 261st Medical Battalion.
According to Peterson, an Army PA will acquire the best of both worlds - a free, two-year education for which the student gets paid to attend, some of the best medical training within the profession and the camaraderie of remaining in a supportive, military community. An Army PA typically engenders confidence and a good work ethic in addition to multiple tours - skills that benefit a PA who chooses to remain in the Army (after a four-year service payback) or transfers to the civilian sector (mean income for civilian PAs hovers around $93,000).
In an era of repeated deployments, the Army encourages bright and dedicated Soldiers to apply for the PA program.
The IPAP training to become an active-duty PA is tough. After a year of didactic training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, a large percentage of trainees move to Fort Bragg for the clinical portion of their schooling.
Currently, Fort Bragg hosts 15 students who are required to meet a number of learning objectives and requirements. This includes rotations in areas like surgery (three weeks), urology (two weeks) and dermatology (four weeks), in addition to 160 hours of extra emergency room rotations (above and beyond the initial two weeks of immersion).
Major James Schumacher Jr., IPAP phase II coordinator, has overseen the WAMC program since March. A former Special Forces medic, Schumacher incorporated what he calls a 360 evaluation into the internship phase. These peer reviews invite an open forum of communication where students grade one another on clinical performance and bedside manner.
"It (teaches) you about blind spots. Things are brought forward that normally you would not see," said Schumacher.
As students begin to grade their classmates, they learn to refine the critique process and foster a healthy team attitude. It also instills confidence in students as they learn to seek feedback and then trust their own assessments.
"You have a lot less treatment errors (as a result)," said Schumacher.
October 6 to 12 marked National Physician Assistant week at Fort Bragg with the motto "leaders in Soldier health care." Opening day, supervisors treated their PAs to a corps surgeon's office luncheon at the Blue Ribbon bistro, with a special presentation by Col. Brian T. Canfield, hospital commander, Womack Army Medical Center. Throughout the week, a display in the WAMC lobby was dedicated to the work of PAs and gave tribute to their continued service and expanding role in our military health care system. Fort Bragg PAs also held a blood drive to benefit wounded warriors in their most critical hour.
"Army PAs do not look for credit or attention, as most consider their position an honor and privilege. I could provide many stories from PAs and their Families of personal sacrifices made to accomplish multiple deployments," said Lt. Col. Sherry Lynn Womack, XVIII Airborne Corps senior PA and current president of the Society of Army Physician Assistants.
"We have at least 55 Army PA positions on Fort Bragg at any given time and I am so very proud and humbled by their continued sacrifices. All of our PAs give selflessly to our great country by responding to the health care needs of servicemembers and their Families,"said Womack.