FORT BENNING, GA – “I wanted to be a doctor for as long as I can remember … it was the only thing I ever considered doing. You get to make a difference in the lives of so many people and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
While most teenagers are just trying to figure out homework, dating and what they want to be when they grow up, Winder Troop Medical Clinic (TMC) Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C) Jennifer Wampler was way ahead of the game.
“I started basic shadowing while in high school with a couple of local physicians in Columbus,” said Wampler. “I would show up and be placed with the PA to observe patient care. After this happened twice, I realized that the midlevel providers were doing what I wanted to do (seeing patients) and the doctors were dealing with a lot more of the administrative side of medicine (something I didn’t have a particular interest in).”
When the frigid northern winters proved too much for this southern gal, Wampler transferred from The State University of New York at Buffalo, back home to Columbus State University, to finish up her undergraduate degree.
“I completed my last two years of shadowing during college with PA-C George Vaillant at TMC 5 on Fort Benning with the trainees,” said Wampler. “I guess that is when I found my calling and have been with Soldier care ever since – 17 years [as of September] actually.”
But before she could realize her lifelong dream of taking care of people, Wampler had to get into PA school. She was so driven that two rejections because she was too young didn’t deter her.
“The hardest part of becoming a physician assistant was getting past the interview. I was able to complete all the course requirements for PA school entry at age 19,” explained Wampler. “I applied twice to the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, but was told ‘I was like a steak and needed to season.’
“My third attempt was successful and I was accepted to the PA program at South University in Savannah. I graduated with honors in May 2004.”
The military spouse started her career taking care of trainees at Fort Jackson when her husband was stationed in Columbia, S.C. Wampler has worked in Martin Army Community Hospital’s Department of Warrior Care ever since transferring back to the Peach State in November 2008. At Winder TMC, Wampler is responsible for taking care of ten battalions of basic training and AIT (advanced individual training) Soldiers – approximately 12,000 trainees at peak times.
“Anything and everything can walk through the door, from blisters and bug bites to anaphylaxis [severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction] … from a basic cold to pneumothorax [collapsed lung],” said Wampler. “We see joint injuries with large numbers of stress fractures and we see MRSA [antibiotic-resistant bacteria] infections daily.
“A typical day at Winder can include any and all of the above, with no preset schedules or appointments. It’s a mystery what your day will be like until you pull up in the parking lot and see how long the line is waiting to sign in.”
Wampler’s days are a blur of activity starting at 6 a.m. On a typical day, she treats as many as 30 patients, for acute and chronic problems alike.
“The average trainee is between 17-23 years old. Some have never been to the doctor without a parent. Some have never been to a doctor at all,” explained Wampler. “The most rewarding part of my job is finding those health conditions (sometimes life threatening that might have never been caught if not for the Soldier coming into the Army) and getting them the appropriate work-up and treatment plan.”
She recalls one Soldier in particular she treated at Winder in the summer of 2009. The young trainee in his very first week of training had come in complaining of mild chest pain and cough. But every test came back normal: chest x-ray, EKG [electrocardiogram which records the electrical signal from your heart] and vital signs upon arrival.
“About an hour after initiating his work-up, he spiked a fever of 102. We collected some blood to assess for infection and the WBC (white blood cell) count came back >100,000. The Soldier was immediately transferred to Walter Reed in blast phase of Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. He had come into the Army not knowing he had Leukemia and we caught it within 24 hours of his immune system shutting down.
“He came back to Ft. Benning five years later, found me at a different clinic just to say thank you and show me his remission paperwork,” said Wampler. “He said ‘thank goodness you drew that blood,’ and I said ‘thank you for spiking the perfectly timed fever.’”