Critical to the mission: Physician assistants step up amid COVID-19 pandemic

October 6, 2020  //  FOUND IN: Our Employees,

Across Michigan Medicine, from ambulatory care clinics, to critical care and general inpatient units, to the emergency departments and operating rooms, faculty and staff stepped up in extraordinary ways to take care of patients and colleagues at the height of COVID-19.

As PA Week 2020 kicks off, it is the perfect opportunity to celebrate the organization’s physician assistants, many of whom served on the front lines of patient care.

“Our PAs took the COVID-19 pandemic as a call to action to focus on providing exceptional care,” said Marc Moote, Chief Physician Assistant at Michigan Medicine. “Many PAs provided hands-on care for patients with COVID-19 and hundreds of others were deployed or were on deck for deployment to other areas to carry out our mission. It’s a testament to their professionalism and flexibility as individuals — along with the breadth and quality of their PA training — that qualified them to surge into so many different areas during this time of need.” 

Those who were not redeployed remained in their primary areas where they served as the cornerstones of their team, maintaining consistency on their units, services and clinics. 

“This allowed for others to be redeployed to different areas where they reached outside of their normal duties,” Moote said. “Their ability to pivot in this situation showed how essential PAs are to our clinical operations. Everyone did their part to contribute during this time.”

Here’s a closer look at just a few of the PAs who stepped up in a big way during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic and what their experience was like, in their own words:

Naomi Williams, PA-C

Photo by Cecile Hollinshead, PA-C

Williams has worked in the adult and pediatric emergency departments and critical care unit since 2004.

“Believe it or not, work actually provided me some sort of normality, as everything else in life was changing during COVID-19. When I came to work, things were unpredictable, but that’s always the case, which I think prepared us all for the pandemic.

At times, it was eerie because our volume of patients actually decreased. Patients were afraid to come to the ER and many were sicker than usual when they did arrive because they had waited to come in.

In the end, I am most proud of how our Emergency Department team worked together. Our PA group has been together for a long time and we provided – and continue to provide – a lot of emotional support to one another.”

Jennifer Norman, PA-C

Photo by Cecile Hollinshead, PA-C

Norman typically works in the Department of General Surgery primarily providing consultations for bariatric and hernia surgeries. During COVID-19, she volunteered to work on the COVID Hotline with Occupational Health Services.

“I thought this was a good opportunity to use my skills to help the Ann Arbor and Michigan Medicine community during this unprecedented time. The hotline was formed from the ground up, in part by an amazing fellow PA, Ann Walker, of OHS. In addition to taking employee calls for COVID testing, we would order testing, ask if they were interested in COVID-19 research, call with results and review patient online symptoms logs.

The COVID-19 situation was unique in that many calls didn’t have a ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer. As a group, we would discuss case scenarios at daily huddles, which was a great learning experience.

While I felt stress and anxiety during the peak of COVID-19 — especially during a week when my 12-month-old was waking up several times per night — I am really proud that a group of us, with all different medical and life experiences as well as skill levels, came together and formed an efficient work group to ensure that Michigan Medicine employees were cared for throughout the pandemic.”

Bruce Sullens, PA-C

Photo by Cecile Hollinshead, PA-C

Sullens works with the Department of Family Medicine at the Chelsea Health Center. During the pandemic, he was redeployed to assist with drive-thru COVID-19 testing at West Ann Arbor and, later, to staff the Respiratory Clinic at WAA.

“As with everyone, things changed quickly for me. I was contacted on a Sunday evening in mid-March to see if I would be willing to attend a meeting regarding the drive-up/curbside testing that was being implemented. The next morning, myself along with Erik Cabble and Susan Doyle, PA’s from Dexter and Briarwood, met with those coordinating that process. I was placed at West Ann Arbor where I worked with MAs and nurses deployed from other sites to obtain nasopharyngeal swabs. After 3-4 weeks, I was transitioned to the respiratory clinic at WAA. I returned to Chelsea full-time at the end of May.

I decided to help with the testing because I believe that we all have a desire to do good things when asked. This was an opportunity to make a contribution at the time and it felt like the right thing to do given the circumstances.

In the end, we’ve all been able to meet people that we otherwise may have never known. From that, I hope that we all become a little better.”

Jeanne McLelland, PA-C

Photo by Shannon Ranella, PA-C

McLelland is a surgery thoracic PA who volunteered to be deployed to the RICU, then to the 12W critical care unit. She staffed more critical care shifts during the height of the pandemic than any other PA.

“I volunteered for the RICU because I really wanted to make a difference. But I’m not the only one – so many other PAs stepped up and were willing to take risks in order to keep others safe.

In the end, I am proud I volunteered; I am proud that our PAs stepped up; I am proud of the quality care we provided patients in the RICU; and I am proud of everything I learned in the process.

Even more importantly, I know that this experience will allow me and others to become even more compassionate after we watched the suffering of families who couldn’t be with their loved ones to offer support and advocacy.” 

James Kanak, PA-C

Photo by Cecile Hollinshead, PA-C

Kanak works in the Medical Short Stay Unit (MSSU). During the pandemic, he was redeployed to the general inpatient teams caring for COVID-19 patients.

“At first I had a lot of uncertainty about what my individual role would entail. I was paired up with physicians I had never met on floors where I had never worked.

Add to that the fact that guidelines and protocols were forever changing, that I was worried about contracting COVID-19 and spreading it to my family, and this was easily the most stressful time of my PA career. But I wasn’t the only one in that boat, and my colleagues and I spent a lot of time sharing our anxieties and helping each other get through day by day.

Looking back now, I know how unique this opportunity was to utilize my skills and expertise in general medicine to provide care for those in need. I can see that the experience helped me develop my clinical skills and gain a broader sense of the value of being a PA.”

Lindsay Brackett, PA-C

Photo by Cecile Hollinshead, PA-C

Brackett has been a medical oncology PA for the past 17 years at Michigan Medicine. She redeployed to inpatient general medicine to help care for COVID-positive patients.

“While the first couple of days working with COVID-19 patients were the most challenging, the physicians, APPs, nurses and other PAs were so welcoming, supportive and kind. It made me grateful for the experience I gained.

Now that I’ve transitioned back to oncology care, many of my visits with patients are performed via telehealth. I appreciate the flexibility that telehealth offers, especially for those undergoing routine surveillance.

But for those who do come in person – due to complexity of their diagnoses, symptoms or treatment plans — I am thankful that I am still able to help them. Staying socially distant never gets in the way of us being there for patients!”

Thank you to all the PAs at Michigan Medicine for everything you have done over the past six months, and everything you will continue to do for patients, families and colleagues!