Service learning is an important part of the University’s Physician Assistant program.
Assistant Professor Kelli Frost generally assigns students in her first-year Introduction to the PA Profession class service work in healthcare settings. She says the students gain important skills, as well as a deeper understanding of the field.
But like so many other things, the pandemic forced Frost to change her plans. In 2020, when clinics and other healthcare providers were not bringing in students, Frost had them exchange letters with residents of the St. Patrick Senior Center. It helped students connect with and learn about the needs of an underserved population.
This year, with clinic placements still scarce, Frost had to find another way. She turned to the program’s alumni.
“The PA program has a pretty engaged alumni base,” Frost said. She reached out and 35 alumni responded saying they were willing to chat one-on-one with a first-year PA student. “The goal was to have the freshmen understand the life of a PA and the challenges they are facing during the pandemic.”
Frost said it was an extension of the regular series of PA speakers she has speak to her class, but the conversations turned more personal and emotional.
These candid conversations took place virtually and started with a few scripted questions, and then went deeper.
One of the students, Shawn Schwesinger, was paired with a PA working in Sterling Heights. He found the experience eye-opening.
“She was more fortunate than many people because she worked in a family practice the pandemic did not cause as many problems for her as it did for others,” Schwesinger said. “The office did mostly telehealth, which increased her paperwork and there weren’t other people in the office to help share the work.”
She told him about the increase in patients with complaints of anxiety and depression and of her own emotions when patients were healthy one week, and on a ventilator the next.
“She did experience provider burnout,” he said. “But she was better off than many people because she was able to keep her job throughout the pandemic.”
In his reflection paper after the discussion, Schwesinger wrote: “Speaking with a medical professional, which I one day aspire to be, about the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on their lives allowed me to experience a sense of compassion…towards all healthcare workers and all people in general. … The interview also made me feel more inclined to help others and make sure that I check up and support those around me with their mental and physical health.”
Molly Soraghan was another student who participated in the project. Her reflection paper talks of a moment in her interview of a PA who works with cardiovascular Associates.
“I know she has to put on a brave face every day, work through the fatigue and get back to helping those in need. It was in this small moment that I could see the toll that this pandemic has taken on everyone, especially healthcare providers.”
Jeff Cornell ’12 is a PA on the Critical Care Team at Ascension Hospital in Warren. He remembered the day the PA student called him.
“I was really tired after a long day of work,” he said. But the conversation was easy and Cornell was happy to participate.
“I always enjoy talking to the students,” he said. “I think it’s important for them to have a clinical perspective, which was hard because so many clinical placements were canceled because of COVID. I don’t think students can really appreciate what the field is like without clinicals.”
After the experience, Frost and her students felt the need to give back to the alumni who helped her. She took inspiration from a project one of her children did in elementary school: A virtual quilt.
“I had each student create a square for what we called an Alumni Gratitude Quilt,” Frost said.
Students offered encouragement and thanks.
“You never know when a helping hand will change another person’s entire life,” wrote one student. Another’s panel read “Not every superhero wears a cape…some wear scrubs.” Others, simply: “Thank you.”
Frost turned them into a paneled piece of art that she sent to the alumni who participated.
“The students got a lot out of it and the alumni said they were grateful to have someone to tell their story to,” Frost said.
Frost plans to use transcripts of all interviews and the student papers reflecting on the experience in an academic paper about the project.