Class 1, MEDEX Northwest Physician Assistant Program
Hometown: Danville, Calif.
Fun Fact: Enjoys skijoring with her two husky dogs
It takes a special person to handle the intensity of working in an emergency room. UAA physician assistant student Heather Burnell is one of those people. As a member of “Class 1″ — Alaska’s first class of physician assistants — Heather will celebrate the completion of her studies at a graduation ceremony tomorrow, and will go on to become one of Alaska’s next physician assistants.
Originally from Danville, Calif., Heather spent many hours in a hospital’s ICU in her late teens visiting her step-brother who was stabbed in the chest multiple times. She and her family lived far away from the hospital, so they spent a lot of time camping out between visiting hours.
“I would sit on a bench where all the ambulances came in to the trauma center in Oakland,” Heather said. “The paramedics noticed that I was there all the time; I got to know them well and they eventually invited me to go on an ambulance ride-along.”
After seeing the inner workings of an ER and ambulance in action, Heather was hooked on emergency medicine.
At just 17, Heather enrolled in EMT school, and transitioned into paramedic school a year later. She worked in Oakland for about nine years on an ambulance running 911 calls. After almost a decade on the road, she was ready for a change of pace. She signed up for a law enforcement academy for the National Park Service and secured a job working in Yosemite as a paramedic and law enforcement ranger.
While in the park, Heather met people from Talkeetna, who later offered her a job to come north to Alaska and work for their raft guiding company. The couple was seeking people with paramedic experience to be their raft guides, and Heather jumped at the opportunity for a new adventure. She worked on the river for one season before getting a job at a clinic in the small town.
Having been in the medical field for a long time, Heather knew medicine was what she wanted to do for the remainder of her career. Becoming a PA was always been in the back of her mind, but there weren’t any programs in Alaska at the time, and it wasn’t feasible for her to consider attending an out-of-state school.
PAs are licensed to practice medicine under the supervision of a physician. Heather said that PAs don’t have to work in the same clinic as their collaborating physician, so long as they can connect via telephone 24/7. PAs can work autonomously to diagnose and treat patients, and will check-in with their doctor as needed and during monthly site visits.
After five years in Talkeetna, Heather started working at a clinic on the North Slope. She happened to mention her interest in pursing a career as a PA to a colleague — also a PA — who later discovered that UAA was initiating the MEDEX Northwest Physician Assistant Program in partnership with the University of Washington School of Medicine. He quickly told Heather about the opportunity.
“My eyes lit up and I immediately jumped on the computer to figure out what I needed to do to get into the program,” Heather said.
Heather was one of 20 students accepted into the program in 2009. Successful applicants needed a minimum of 4,000 hours of paid, direct patient access experience to earn a slot in the program — something Heather could easily check off the list.
After being accepted into the Anchorage cohort, students spent six weeks at the program’s flagship in Seattle with groups from the program’s other sites: Seattle, Spokane and Yakima. The Alaska group then returned north to embark on their journey to become PAs. They spent one year completing didactic training and a second year doing clinical rotations, mainly at sites across Alaska.
Heather explained that the program is very intense, and being together with a small cohort can be challenging, but also very rewarding. “We’re all thrown into a classroom for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, and we’re under a lot of stress,” she said. “Sometimes you love each other; sometimes you’re happy it’s the weekend and you don’t have to see these people until Monday.” She said that during their clinical year, though, everyone is spread out across different sites.
Despite the challenges, Heather said that the support she has received from her family, fellow classmates and faculty is what has successfully gotten her through the program. “Having that brother-sister relationship with my classmates has been really helpful — they understand exactly what I’m going through.”
What’s appealing to many people about a career as a PA is not being married to one specialty. “As a PA, you have the flexibility to work in family practice or pediatrics for a few years, and then move to surgery, if you choose,” Heather said.
During her rotation year, Heather spent four months in family practice, in addition to four-week rotations in behavioral health, general surgery, emergency room, cardiothoracic surgery, neurosurgery and, most recently, orthopedics. She also completed a selective two-week rotation in forensic pathology.
Though Heather came into the program open to exploring other opportunities besides emergency medicine, it’s what she’s drawn to and it’s an environment she thrives in. Her clinical experiences have helped underscore her passion for working in emergency medicine. She also discovered that she enjoyed working in an operating room setting as well. “I didn’t think I would like it [the OR] as much as I did,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of time in the OR; it’s a whole different culture than in the rest of the hospital. I really like it there.”
As a PA in an OR, Heather can “1st assist” by draping patients, sterilizing and making incisions, suctioning, suturing and, in general, help the physician successfully complete the surgery. “You’re basically doing almost everything a surgeon on the other side of the table would be doing.”
After graduating, Heather and her fellow graduates plans to sit for the National Certifying Exam for Physician Assistants to become certified PAs. Heather will seek employment in Anchorage. She said that all but one of her classmates plan to stay in Alaska to work.
“I feel like the program has prepared my whole class very well. I’m proud of us all, and think this is a really great thing for Alaska.”