PA Program at Full Strength

As first class enters rotations, a new crop of students climbs aboard

Story by Billy Liggett

Pat Chaney and Sunny Sawyer’s backgrounds couldn’t be any more different. Chaney recently retired from the military and is a 40-year-old Campbell alumnus; Sawyer hails from Sacramento, Calif., and is a 2008 graduate of UC-Davis who entered the field geological surveying right out of college.

The two make up a small part of the 40-member second class of Campbell University’s physician assistant program, which began its grueling 12-month on-campus course load in August. At the same time, the inaugural class began Year 2 by starting its 15-month-long clinical rotations at some of the state’s top hospitals and clinics. That inaugural class will graduate in December 2013.

The physician assistant program is now running on all cylinders, with 74 total students working toward their degree. And if Year 1 was all about laying a foundation, Year 2 has been about building on the program’s early success.

“I feel we had a strong program in the first year … amazingly strong for a new program,” said Betty Lynne Johnson, associate professor of health professional sciences and a certified physician assistant. “[PA Director Tom] Colletti and [Academic Coordinator David] Coniglio laid the groundwork because of their expertise and experience in developing a program prior to coming to Campbell. That was incredibly beneficial.”

All 34 students who started the program in its first year made it to the rotation phase, which Johnson attributes to that class’ closeness and willingness to work together rather than compete against each other.

As early as orientation, the second-year PA students learned the significance of working together as a team toward a goal. Before classes began in late August, the class chose a line from the classic U2 song “One” as its motto “We get to carry each other.” The choice solidifies the idea that the program won’t become stronger because of individual efforts. “In medical school, there’s a lot of competition to get residence slots. Here, it’s not like that,” said Laura Gerstner, the program’s clinical coordinator and a certified physician assistant. “Our goal is for all 40 of these students to get through and learn the information they need to treat patients. Right now, they don’t realize the stress that will come into play later on this year and how that stress can break a class apart. That’s why the team building is important.”

Physician assistants are trained and licensed to practice medicine, but their careers differ from that of a DO or an MD in that they’re required to practice under the supervision of a physician. The demand for PAs is great, and CNN recently ranked “physician assistant” as the second-highest ranked job on its list of “100 Best Jobs in America.” Both Sawyer and Chaney know a lot will be thrown at them in the next two-plus years. But they say they’re up to the challenge. And both are taking the advice of the class before them. “We’re working together for one goal … one objective,” Chaney said. “That’s where the motto comes in. We get to carry each other.”