We asked physician assistants (PAs) across the country to submit a story from their professional experience that celebrates their career. Here is our first-place story from PA Week 2015!
I have had a variety of experiences working as a U.S. Air Force physician assistant (PA) for eight years and serving more than 25 years of active duty.
First, my most exciting experience was the moment when my commander, along with the hospital’s senior PA, told me that I was selected to the military’s very competitive Interservice Physician Assistant Program (IPAP).
I joined the U.S. Air Force on November 15, 1989, and after completing basic training, I became a skilled Air Force medical technician. I found myself loving medicine and working alongside prodigious Air Force PAs who mentored me. Those PAs pushed me to apply to the military’s PA program.
When I was notified of my selection, it was a dream come true. I started IPAP in January 2005, and every day from that point was stimulating. I graduated in January 2007.
I would say the most pleasurable experience has been rendering medical care to active and retired military members and their families. I love the U.S. Air Force and most importantly the absolute satisfaction of treating active and retired military and their family members as a family health PA.
The most demanding experience was my 13-month deployment to Zabul, Afghanistan. This deployment notification created a variety of feelings for my family and me: excitement, nervousness, concerns of safety, and sadness. These feelings are not unusual for any military or family member with military moves or deployments.
In October 2011, I arrived in Zabul to work with a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). Our PRT consisted of Army National Guard and active duty Air Force, working in conjunction with the Department of State, the Department of Agriculture, USAID, and the Department of Justice. The PRT mission in Afghanistan was to work with province leaders to coordinate, develop, and fund local projects with the aid of the government. These projects enabled the local population to become familiar with and trust the U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan.
While deployed, PAs need to think fast and occasionally throw out the textbook. The day-to-day field operations can differ from the day-to-day clinic operations because options and resources are limited. At times, decisions have to be improvised, and PAs must know how to manipulate medicine in austere conditions. We are taught to think outside the box, especially because deployed PAs aren’t always co-located with a physician. As a result, military PAs receive excellent battle-tested experiences and training.
During my deployment, our team responded to a bus rollover accident that resulted in in approximately 45 to 50 injuries. Our medical team responded to the local hospital and worked in conjunction with the local providers. To our surprise, the Afghan providers were experienced in triage. Within minutes, our team of two medics, two doctors, and me performed triage and medically evacuated nine patients to the Afghan hospital for emergency treatment, from which they all recovered. This was the first of many accidents that we responded to.
For me, the most disheartening experience was when our team responded to a suicide bomber incident at the local Afghan hospital. The target was local Afghan government officials, but the Improvised Exploding Device (IED) exploded close to two children. We medically evacuated the children to the nearest Forward Surgical Team (FST), which was three miles away. Our commander didn’t want any lost children in the system, so I accompanied both children until a parent was found. The flight in the Black Hawk helicopter that dark night seemed to take about an hour. It was pitch black without a moonbeam in sight. The flight actually took less than five minutes.
Two teams performed emergency surgery and medical care in the most austere environment possible, saving the boy but not the girl. I flew back to Kabul military hospital with the boy, who appeared to be close to my son’s age, and stayed by his side as he laid in an induced coma. When the boy’s father arrived with our team, he was small, frail, and older than expected. He took my hands and squeezed them with a sincere smile. That experience and moment will linger with me in my heart for the rest of my life. The Afghan children just want to be like children, but their days are full of turmoil, poverty, war, and sometimes death. Those were some emotionally challenging moments, but there were heartfelt moments along the way.
One of my favorite experiences was working with the Department of Women’s Affairs (DOWA) and interacting with the young girls at the only girls’ school in Zabul, Bibi Khala. The literacy rates in Zabul are lowest in the country. While working with the DOWA, our team mentored the women on legal, economic, social, political, and civic rights, including their right to be free from all forms of violence and discrimination. This experience framed my desire to join humanitarian groups that work in third-world countries to improve health, living conditions, and education of young girls, following my military service obligation.
There is no sense of pride or purpose quite like the pride of serving your country. In my 25+ years of U.S. Air Force service, I have learned great life lessons in discipline, leadership, responsibility, honor, courage, and commitment while building lifelong friendships along the way. These experiences have also helped make my family and children more responsible and capable of facing many challenges.