Turning adversity to success: PA program grows with addition of 34 new students

August 03, 2020
Lenoir-Rhyne-MUSC PA students
Physician Assistant student Natalie Penny, top row, third from left, is joined by several co-students who began their studies at Lenoir-Rhyne University and have since joined MUSC's program.

Eight months ago, Natalie Penny was living her dream.

As a first-semester student in the Physician Assistant Studies program at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina, Penny had achieved her goal of attending PA school and was on her way to becoming a physician assistant.

The Granite Falls native was among a cohort of 37 students in the institution’s new class, starting the 15-month didactic learning phase of the program.

In early March, as the COVID-19 outbreak swept the country, Penny’s class and students everywhere were forced to switch to online classes and virtual learning for the remainder of spring semester. For some institutions, the change would create unique challenges for some of its programs, faculty, staff and students.

Penny did well with her classes, but nothing would prepare her for the reality that would soon affect her and her classmates.

In mid-May, after having finished her exams, Penny was away on a beach vacation with her family when she received an email from Lenoir-Rhyne University President Frederick Whitt, Ph.D. The email explained that the institution had formally submitted a voluntary withdrawal from the accreditation process to the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) – the organization that accredits PA programs across the United States. The email also explained that the institution would allow the second and third-year cohorts to complete their rotations and graduate, but that Penny and her cohort would not continue as active students in the program and should anticipate matriculating into another PA program to continue with their studies.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Penny, 26, who found herself nauseated by the news. “I kept asking myself, ‘Is this real?’”

She reflected on her journey and the personal sacrifices she’d already made to get her to that point not to mention the time, money and commitment required to cycle through the PA school application process at other institutions.

About 258 miles away in Charleston, Helen Martin, DHSC, PA-C, was on her daily walk when she received a call from Lenoir-Rhyne dean Michael McGee, Ph.D.

Martin is an associate professor and division director of the College of Health Profession’s Division of Physician Assistant Studies program at MUSC. Martin previously served as a faculty member at Lenoir-Rhyne in 2013 and helped launch its PA program, also establishing inpatient and outpatient clinical rotations for students. Knowing that Lenoir-Rhyne’s PA curriculum and clinical training program closely matched MUSC’s, Martin considered the possibilities. At the same time, MUSC PA faculty and college leaders were already outlining an expansion plan of their own in an effort to meet the state’s need for more health care specialists, like physician assistants. The situation with the Lenoir-Rhyne students actually offered a potential solution, thought Martin.

“This was a unique opportunity for MUSC and the Lenoir-Rhyne students,” said Martin. “For years, our program’s goal has always been to increase our class size. This situation created a rare opportunity for us to act upon. And in the end, it was a win-win for everyone.”

Acting quickly, Martin contacted the Lenoir-Rhyne students to determine their needs and immediately met with leadership – Zoher Kapasi, PT.,Ph.D., dean of the College of Health Professions, as well as Lisa K. Saladin,P.T., Ph.D., executive vice president for Academic Affairs and provost. According to Martin, everyone agreed that involvement with the Lenoir-Rhyne students would be a good thing, assisting students who were in dire need of placement and creating an opportunity to train and prepare PAs who could potentially stay and practice in the Palmetto State – strengthening the network of health care providers.

“The college has been exploring pathways to expand the class size to train physician assistants to fill the shortage and growing needs of PAs in South Carolina. The opportunity to onboard the Lenoir-Rhyne students into our program paved the way for us to achieve this objective and allowed these well-qualified students to continue on their journey to becoming physician assistants. I am proud of our faculty for rising to this challenge and serving these students and their profession,” said Kapasi.

Five days from the time Penny received the devastating news, she received an email from President Whitt alerting her of her acceptance and the approval of the class’s transfer to MUSC’s PA Studies program. Students were given five days to accept the offer, and 32 of the 37 original students elected to transfer to MUSC.

“We had been through so much during that period of uncertainty,” said Penny. “It was like an emotional roller coaster for me and the others. But Dr. Martin, MUSC’s PA faculty and leadership worked so hard to make this happen while keeping our cohort class together in this process. It was an incredible moment that reaffirmed to me that ‘you’ve accepted us,’ and we truly feel we belong at MUSC.”

Almost immediately, Martin and the PA faculty at MUSC started communicating with the students and made plans. They initiated regular Zoom meetings to connect students with faculty members and staff, share student information, review details of the didactic curriculum, discuss clinical opportunities and cover other important topics.

Martin guided the new students’ transition into MUSC’s curriculum and assisted with other needs while helping them adapt to being part of the new larger cohort, as it grew from 60 to 94 total students. On Fridays, Martin hosts a coffee hour specifically for the Lenoir-Rhyne students. It’s a Zoom meeting where students can address personal or academic concerns or just meet and connect with other students to get to know each other and plan student events. Another tool to assist them is the “big brother/big sister” program to ease the students’ transition to PA school while providing social and academic support.

Martin credits the PA faculty and staff and her college’s leadership for their collaboration and support through the expansion.

“All of us in the program and college have learned a lot about online teaching, Zoom for meetings and other tools that were needed to teach remotely. For those who’ve put up some resistance to these changes, they now realize that it’s doable, and we’ve learned how to adjust and to do it quickly,” she said.

Moving forward, Martin and fellow faculty are focused on the fall and spring semesters and the impact of COVID-19 on students and teaching during this time. If classes or labs must meet in person, students will be organized into smaller groups and required to wear gloves and masks and social distance, all of which are important as one class scheduled for fall, Physical Diagnosis, requires students to work with partners to conduct head-to-toe physical exams.

Martin is pleased with everyone’s progress so far. She said the students are adjusting nicely, and everyone’s communicating with each other. The students recently completed their class elections, and students from Lenoir-Rhyne were also elected to leadership positions.

“What I see coming out of this transition is the exposure that I know I’ll get out of MUSC’s PA program. The hands-on learning opportunities in MUSC’s state-of-the-art facilities and clinical experiences can only shape me into the health care provider I want to become. I’m excited about all the possibilities,” said Penny.

“This is such an exciting time for us. Just the idea of reaching out and helping these students was a big deal,” Martin added. “I’ve received nothing but sincere appreciation and gratitude from the Lenoir-Rhyne students, and it has reaffirmed that our decision was the right thing to do. They’re such a great group.”

About the Author

Cindy Abole

Keywords: Education, Features