Union's PA program emphasizes a ministry of healing

This spring marked the tenth class to graduate from Union’s physician assistant (PA) program, and the fourth to complete the program with master’s degrees. And while the program has always had a reputation for turning out highly-qualified health professionals, recent classes have proven the program keeps getting stronger. In four of the past five years, 100 percent of graduates passed the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination on their first attempt. So it’s no surprise that Union College’s PAs are in high demand.

“Teaching responsible servanthood is our foremost goal, and our graduates are taking that into the field in a way that makes them stand out from their peers,” explained Mike Huckabee, Union College’s PA program director. “Employers recognize that, and some even contact our program to list their jobs among the new PA graduates. They want our graduates because they show compassionate integrity that goes beyond what they normally see in the profession.” In fact, 100 percent of Union’s PA graduates have jobs within just three months of graduation.

In 2010, the PA program earned the maximum seven-year accreditation from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA), the national PA accreditation association. This is an exceptional honor, as less than 10 percent of the schools who earned continuing accreditation from 2004-2008 were awarded the maximum seven-year term. “These numbers show the real accomplishments of our graduates, the hard work and effort they put in and the training our program gives them,” Huckabee said.

Union’s physician assistant students’ emphasis on compassion and skill has also earned recognition from the National Health Services Corps (NHSC). The NHSC scholarship is a highly sought-after government program which pays tuition and living expenses in exchange for students’ commitment to serve in a high-need area that has a shortage of health professionals. Six Union College physician assistant students have earned this coveted scholarship, including graduates Larry Sluiter ’08 and Roberta Yoshimura ’04.

While the NHSC is a federal program available to medical, dental, nurse practitioner and physician assistant students at accredited public and private colleges and universities throughout the United States, their emphasis on compassionate care for the underserved fits right in with Union College’s physician assistant program’s goals. “We teach our whole curriculum from a Christian viewpoint,” emphasized Huckabee. “We engage scripture and we focus on the life of Christ. His was a ministry of healing, and we understand that the Bible teaches us how to respond when we approach life and death. It’s a holistic approach and we feel our students and their future patients are best served because they’re called to make a difference. They’re called to serve God and man.”

A Burden for Rural Health Care

Larry Sluiter, a 2008 Union College PA Program graduate, currently serves in Onida, South Dakota. He is the only full-time health professional serving Sully County, and with the closest hospital more than 35 miles away, his small clinic provides vital services to the more than 700 local residents.

Sluiter began his career as a medical technologist in southeast Kentucky and in Michigan. While in Michigan, the hospital Sluiter worked at was closed down because of budgetary constraints. “I got to see firsthand what hardships come to communities that are robbed of health care,” he says. “That really left an impression on me and I saw what the lack of health facilities does to the community and what great need there is for health care in underserved communities.”

Colleagues encouraged Sluiter to grow his medical expertise and become a physician assistant, and he found a home at Union. “I had been working in the medical field since 1985, so I had a broad clinical knowledge base. I talked with Mike Huckabee, the program director, and found that Union College has a passion to find physician assistant candidates who have unique talents and well-rounded experience in the health care field. I chose Union because their philosophy was in line with what I wanted to incorporate with my personal beliefs and professional background.”

His years of experience in the medical field and his training at Union give Sluiter the ability to effectively practice in an area ignored by other health professionals. “I’ve always had a burden for rural health care,” he said. “My beliefs prompted me to turn down job offers from larger health care centers and accept this position at a stand-alone clinic in a small town that had a great need for medical professionals.”

Sluiter has found that serving a community so far from the bright lights of large cities is filled with opportunity. He explained, “It’s rewarding and challenging, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s a real importance to my being here, and I’m constantly growing as a professional. I’ve even seen rare situations that rival those at large hospitals.” Along with routine checkups at his mainly family practice, Sluiter treats accident victims from farms, performs basic lab tests and X-rays, completes physicals for truck drivers and deals with internal medicine issues. He’s even had a patient who, after several months of collaborative study with four different neurologic clinics, was diagnosed with a debilitating syndrome on the National Institutes of Health’s list of rare diseases.

He’s grateful for the NHSC loan repayment scholarship which has rewarded him for practicing in an area of great need, but financial rewards aren’t what drive Sluiter’s commitment to service. “Medicine is not a career but a calling,” he affirmed. “It takes an internal drive and personal devotion to practice medicine in areas that some consider not worth the financial payback or regard as having a lower quality of existence. For me, being a physician assistant is all about giving back and being there for the people that need you most.”

A Cyclical Journey

Tacoma, Wash., may not be a place you’d expect to find a medically underserved population. But there in the immigration detention center, thousands of detainees rely on just a handful of health care professionals to diagnose, treat and prevent illnesses.

Roberta Yoshimura’s journey started in 1998 during her three-month medical assistant externship in a small village in Guatemala, where she helped two young doctors treat the local population. At the doctors’ urging, she decided to go back to school to become a physician assistant; and after graduating from Union, Yoshimura accepted a position treating migrant farm workers in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Later, when she saw the call for a female physician assistant who spoke Spanish to screen and treat female detainees at the immigration detention center in Tacoma, Yoshimura knew it was a natural fit.

Yoshimura’s career has afforded her the unique opportunity to see the cyclical journeys of many patients. “I started in that poor village in Guatemala, and I saw how the people had little access to health care and jobs. Many of my female patients told me their husbands had come to the United States to work, and I saw why firsthand. They’re desperate, their children are dying of preventable diseases and infections, and they need a way to feed their families,” she explained. Then, as a new PA in California, Yoshimura treated migrant day laborers and field workers. “It was hard, intensive labor, and they suffered from disease and illness, but they were proud to do the work,” she remembered.

Now, in the immigration detention center, Yoshimura treats patients on the final leg of their journey, as they are sent back to their home countries. “They often say to me, ‘I don’t know how I will feed my family now.’ I see their despair, and I truly understand where they’re coming from because I’ve been to the place many of them come from,” she said. “It’s a government facility, so I can’t give them Christian counseling, but I can reassure them that they’re going to get through because God has a plan for them, and I pray for them every day.”

The NHSC strives to identify and reward heath care professionals who are dedicated to service and are willing to work in underserved areas, providing health care to those who need it most. Yoshimura embodies that spirit. “I’m a Christian and my desire is to serve others. That’s why I served in Guatemala, decided to become a PA, and why I’m still serving in underserved areas,” she says. “From my original interview at Union College where I told them my goals until now, and for as long as I can see into the future, I have been and will be serving the underserved.”