UNC Health Talk

Veterans and future physician assistant students honored at Veterans Day event

The UNC medical community gathered for its annual Veterans Day event in the lobby of N.C. Memorial Hospital. The focus of this year’s event was the UNC School of Medicine Physician Assistant (PA) Program. The program, which launches in January, is designed to provide educational and career-development opportunities for nontraditional students, including veterans with medical experience, and reduce North Carolina’s healthcare workforce shortage in underserved areas.

Dr. Paul Chelminski, PA program director, professor of medicine, and primary care physician at UNC, spoke at the event.

“The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is the great servant institution to the people of this state,” Chelminski explained to attendees including physicians, hospital leaders and staff, local veterans, four incoming PA program students who served in the military, and others. “The new PA program is an example of our university reinvesting in exceptional individuals, in the ultimate servants — veterans — to accomplish its great servant mission.”

“The new PA program is an example of our university reinvesting in exceptional individuals, in the ultimate servants — veterans — to accomplish its great servant mission.” – Dr. Paul Chelminski

Chelminski noted that prospective students’ enthusiasm for the program was evident throughout the application process, as nearly 900 people completed a program application. The 20 students accepted into the program will begin coursework in January.

The program separates itself from other PA programs by seeking out experienced individuals whose paths to the profession may have been nontraditional. Nine of the 20 members of the program’s first class — 45 percent — are veterans. This compares to six percent for veterans in PA programs nationally. Two of the nine veterans who will be part of the inaugural UNC class are women.

One marker of this nontraditional path is the number of clinical hours applicants have had at the time of application to PA school. The national average for accepted PA students is between 3,000 and 4,000 hours. The UNC PA Program average is 13,000 hours. Another marker is age. The national average for matriculating PA students is 26; the UNC PA Program average is 33.

“Over the course of the last decade, our country has invested billions of dollars in the professional development of thousands of military medics and corpsmen,” said Chelminski. “These people served ably, honorably, often heroically — many in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, yet, when these talented people reverted to civilian life, their impressive military medical training and experience would not translate into civilian credentials that permitted a scope of practice that was anywhere equivalent to the life and death responsibilities they had in the field and on base.”

Several years ago, research done by Dr. Bruce Cairns, director of the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center, and second-year medical student Eric Strand, a former 18-Delta, revealed that most Special Forces medics aspired to continue their medical careers as civilians — 92 percent in fact — and that over half of them would choose the PA profession to do this.

“It was against this background that the University of North Carolina, the School of Medicine, and the military and private partners like Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina dedicated themselves to an endeavor that would honor the potential of talented veterans by giving them the education they needed to improve themselves and to continue to serve their country as civilians,” said Chelminski. “Special Operations soldiers are considered ‘force multipliers’ in the field of combat. Our mission is to make them ‘force multipliers’ in the civilian sphere.”

Chelminski closed his remarks by reading aloud a letter he received from future PA program student and veteran Angel Legare, a United States Air Force medic and nontraditional college student who shared the connection she felt to the program after her interview with program faculty.

“‘I wanted you to know how much I appreciate how the program genuinely values the experience of veterans and sees each of us as a whole person rather than just an application,” read Chelminski. “‘I know this program is going to go far, and it was thrilling to see what UNC has to offer.'”

“‘I appreciate how the program genuinely values the experience of veterans and sees each of us as a whole person rather than just an application,” read Chelminski. “‘I know this program is going to go far, and it was thrilling to see what UNC has to offer.'”

Emceed by UNC Hospitals Police Officer and veteran Terry Mardis, the event began with the showing of United States colors by the newly formed UNC Hospitals Police Honor Guard, under the command of Officer Sherlita Bradford. Members of the local American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars were also in attendance.

Todd Williams, a 28-year veteran of the U.S. Army and former Green Beret medic who received the Bronze Star three times and the Defense Meritorious Service Medal twice, serves as assistant professor and Clinical Coordinator in the the UNC PA Program. Williams delivered the highlight of the event when he introduced four incoming PA students who were in attendance — veterans who combine more than five decades of military service.

The program is made possible because of the unprecedented public-private partnerships that have been formed and the generous donations from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBSNC), the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust, and the Eddie and Jo Allison Smith Family Foundation, and the leadership and support of Dr. Mary Susan Fulghum and her late husband Dr. James Fulghum. These gifts provide all military students scholarship support of either $7,500 or $10,000.

Please read about the service of four of the nine veteran students who were in attendance, as well as their remarks about the UNC Physician Assistant Program.

John Curtis Carr joined the military in 2007 as a Combat Medic assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division. In 2008, he attended the Special Forces Assessment and Selection Course, graduated from the Special Forces Qualification Course and was assigned to an Operational Detachment as an 18-Delta Special Forces Medic. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2012 and 2014 and was twice awarded the Bronze Star Medal. During his deployments, he trained the Afghan National Police in the administration of basic first aid, improving their limited medical capability. Between deployments, he attended the Special Forces Combat Diver Course and the Dive Medical Technician Course to better his team’s capabilities and his skills as a medical provider.

“I started doing research into PA schools and saw UNC as a new and upcoming program on the list,” says Carr. “I was immediately interested and began checking the website — almost daily — to see when I’d have the opportunity to officially apply. I have friends who are at UNC and I knew the medical school was really good. Then, I learned how good the School of Nursing, the School of Pharmacy, and the School of Dentistry are, and when Dr. Chelminski told me I’d been accepted and asked if I wanted to be part of the program, I said, ‘Of course I do,’ and I’m so excited to be here.”

Richard Cowan served in the Army for almost ten years, beginning with the Army Reserves assigned to the 399th Combat Support Hospital from Massachusetts. He then transitioned to active duty as a medic with the 82nd Airborne Division, spending a total of 18 months in Iraq caring for critically ill and injured coalition soldiers. From 2006–2007, during his deployments to Mosul and Al Assad, Iraq, he administered essential medical care to more than 1,000 battlefield casualties as a medic in the forward deployed combat support hospital. He also assisted in a weekly clinic, providing care for local civilians, successfully improving relations through outreach with the local population.

“I went back to school full-time after retiring from the military and heard about the program at that time,” says Cowan. “I kept my eye on it and luckily, as I was finishing up my degree, UNC was starting the application process. I was interested in the program because it is so in tune with what military medics have done. They have people involved in the program who were in the military. Also, the overall track record of UNC Hospitals was appealing — it already has that infrastructure in place to know how to be successful in starting a program like this. Some schools may have nice facilities but not have access to the type of providers UNC has….I cannot wait to get started. I wish I could start tomorrow.”

David Manning retired from military service in September 2013, having served 20 years on Active Duty. His career in the Navy began in 1993 as a Hospital Corpsman, where he earned the qualifications of Diving Medical Technician and Independent Duty Corpsman (IDC). As a senior IDC, he served as the sole medical provider on the USS Grapple and provided medical assistance and training for Special Operations medics while assigned to Naval Special Warfare Group 4. He served his shipmates by providing medical support during two combat deployments to Iraq in 2003 and 2008. He left the Navy as a Chief Petty Officer in 2008 and served his last five years as a Detachment Medical Sergeant for an Airborne Forward Surgical Team at Fort Bragg.

“I heard about the program through word of mouth,” says Manning. “A classmate at Campbell told me about it. It was immediately at the top of my list of PA programs because of UNC’s reputation and because the program is military friendly….UNC was the first school to contact me for an interview and then I found out shortly after that I had been accepted. I heard from other schools about interviews but this was the place I wanted to be….I am excited to be around like-minded vets because we understand that the whole is greater than the individual. But I’m also excited to work with traditional students–people with experiences different from mine….It all comes down to helping people and giving back. That’s what I most enjoy about medicine. I served for 20 years, but this is a different kind of service I want to start providing.”

Bruce Ward has more than two decades of military service. Retiring from the Army in 2003, he continued to care for soldiers as a regional medic in Kosovo from 2003-2004. Drawing on 17 years as a Special Forces medic, he served in Mosul, Iraq, from 2004-2010. He currently works as the clinical medicine and paramedic instructor at the Joint Special Operations Medical Training Center at Fort Bragg, providing instruction for Special Forces, Special Operations and Civil Affairs medics. His awards include the Soldier’s Medal and Humanitarian Service Medal, reflective of his character and demonstrated in his last 12 years of service.

“I’ve long had the desire to become a PA,” says Ward. “I was a medic my entire career and have always worked for PAs. I couldn’t be happier to be coming to UNC. Individuals like Dr. Cairns, Karl Holt, and Todd Williams have been so supportive and encouraging. They love North Carolina and what it has done for them and they want to give back, and that’s how I feel. It inspires me to give back to the military and the people, and that’s what this program will help me do. For me, medicine is not work. I love the medical experience because I can see people and talk with them and help them with their health. The reward of helping people is enormous.”