No one in health care would have imagined even just a few months ago what lay ahead with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those on the frontlines of health care have been pushed to their limits in providing care to patients while taking all precautionary measures to prevent further spread of the novel coronavirus.
The University of South Carolina School of Medicine Columbia Physician Assistant program graduated its first class in 2019, and many of those graduates find themselves working in the middle of the pandemic from orthopedics to neurosurgery to trauma surgery. More than 60 percent of the class chose to remain in South Carolina to practice.
Trauma means business as usual
After earning her master’s degree to become a physician assistant, Caroline Perdue joined Palmetto Health Surgical Specialists, part of the Prisma Health network.
“I had worked as an emergency medical technician before I went to PA school to earn clinical hours,” Perdue says.
That experience and an elective rotation in trauma convinced her to continue following the trauma path. She spends her days assessing trauma cases to determine the next steps of care for patients, whether it be sending the patient to the OR for surgery, moving them to the intensive care unit or continuing to monitor them in the emergency department.
Perdue’s daily schedule has been greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. While she was accustomed to the typical seven-on/seven-off work schedule, her hours have shifted significantly.
“We now work 14 days on, then 14 off,” she says. “Otherwise, it is pretty much business as usual because traumas have not stopped.”
In fact, she says there have been increases in the number of domestic-related trauma cases such as stabbings and assaults.
Getting treated quickly
As a former Gamecock athlete, Claire Miller decided to seek her master’s degree as a PA after developing an interest from her own experiences with orthopedic injuries. Miller, a former member of the UofSC Gamecock Women’s Soccer team, suffered an ACL tear during her high school playing days.
“I worked closely with an orthopedic surgeon and his PA during my surgery and recovery,” she recalls. “I learned so much from the PA about what it means to be in that position, and I shadowed him in high school.”
Miller currently works in the Prisma Health Orthopedic Center Convenient Care Clinic, where she sees a range of orthopedic issues, including sprains, strains, fractures, lacerations and sports medicine injuries, as well as chronic orthopedic conditions. While she doesn’t provide care directly to COVID-19 patients, she says the pandemic has impacted the orthopedic group greatly.
“Kids still fall off bikes, people fall and break bones,” she says, “and they need to be treated relatively quickly. Patients appreciate that they can still see us.”
The pandemic, as it has for all health care facilities, has affected how the group sees patients.
“Everyone is screened before entering by taking their temperature and getting a travel history. We even provide gloves and masks to patients,” she adds, “and all seating is spaced six feet apart for social distancing.
A Passion for Neurology
Nichole Lemay also worked as an EMT before starting her master’s program to become a PA.
“I always knew I wanted to be in the medical field,” she says. “As an EMT, I worked with physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners and PAs. I knew that being a PA would allow me to work with patients in a variety of conditions.”
Lemay works with neurosurgery patients at Prisma Health’s Neurosurgery practice where she manages post-operative care, consults, and helping patients get discharged to the appropriate follow-up care such as rehabilitation.
“I really enjoy working with the acute care conditions that we see through the ER,” she says.
While the number of elective surgeries has declined during the pandemic, Lemay says her team is focused on working with the cases that cannot wait.
“If you’re seeing a neurosurgeon, that is typically not an elective case,” she notes.
Once the pandemic passes, Lemay believes health care facilities may face a sudden surge in the number of surgical requests. And in the midst of working in health care during such a pandemic crisis, Lemay appreciates the emphasis placed on using personal protective equipment during her PA training.
“I’m glad they prepared us appropriately for these scenarios that we are currently experiencing as part of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Alexandra Vezzetti also works with neurology patients at Prisma Health. She began her career in health care as a patient transporter in the emergency department when she was 18 years old. She also had a cousin who attended a PA program.
“I liked the work/life balance that the PA profession provides, as well as knowing I could work in many different specialties,” she says.
She gained a passion for neurology during her rotations as a student.
“I became interested in stroke care due to the high prevalence of stroke in South Carolina, as well as the ability to work with stroke patients long-term,” she says.
Vezzetti says the biggest change that she sees from the COVID-19 pandemic is working with patients remotely.
“We are having to convert our clinic visits into virtual visits, either via phone or video. As we approach the anticipated peak, my work hours may increase to help with the influx of patients,” she adds.
Passion for their career
While each of these graduates finds themselves working in such unexpected circumstances so soon after entering their chosen careers, they also have a great passion for their roles. Vezzetti advises anyone considering attending the UofSC School of Medicine PA program to do it.
“It is a great career that is actively growing,” she says.
Miller offers shadowing opportunities to students who think they might be interested in PA school.
“Whether you’re thinking of medical school, PA school or any other program, find someone to shadow” she says, “because the more information you have, the better decision you can make.”