Physician assistant begins a challenging career

This article submitted by Stephanie Everson on 7/1/97.

For many people, training for a new career is daunting enough, but four kids at home would pose even more of a challenge. Charlotte Thelen, Paynesville Area Health Care System's (PAHCS) physician assistant resident, took on that challenge when she made the decision to go back to school.

Needing a career change to better provide for her family, she ran across exactly the career she was looking for at her son's doctor appointment. Her son was seen by a physician assistant, a type of health care provider she had never heard about before. While in the doctor's office, Thelen was introduced to the work of a physician assistant and decided that was the career field she was looking for.

As a physician assistant, Thelen, who works under the guidance of Randy Zimmerman, M.D., is a highly skilled health professional who works as a team with, and under the medical license of, a supervising physician. "I feel very confident with a physician there," Thelen said. She is trained to provide 80 to 90 percent of the services otherwise performed by a doctor.

For example, having taken many of the same classes as a medical doctor, Thelen is trained to take medical histories, perform physical examinations, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret laboratory tests, perform minor surgery, and in most states, prescribe medications. Physical assistants practice in every medical specialty, from family medicine to surgery.

Thelen mentioned the physician assistant program began in 1965 at Duke University, primarily for Vietnam veterans who had served as medics during the war. Although the veterans had performed all the duties of a doctor, they had not been formally trained as physicians, and therefore, could not practice as doctors once they came home.

That first class was made up of only four former military corpsmen. Today, however, more than 25,000 physician assistants, from more than 70 accredited programs offered by medical schools, colleges, and the U.S. armed forces, practice their profession.

With her home in St. Cloud, Thelen took close to three years of pre-professional education at St. Cloud State University; but because the physician assistant program wasn't offered there, or anywhere else in the state, she was prepared to leave Minnesota. She then found out that Augsburg College in the Twin Cities had recently begun the program of study. For the next three years, she studied there as a full-time student; all the while commuting from St. Cloud every day, and maintaining two jobs in addition to her family.

"I had a very strong support system," she said, but "getting there was hard." Simply being accepted into the program was an obstacle. Out of 200 pre-professional students who qualified, 86 were interviewed. Twenty-four were admitted into the program, and only 22, Thelen being one of them, graduated.

"Because of the intensive training, you need smaller classes to learn," Thelen said. "It's not uncommon not to get accepted the first time you apply. They look for people skills." Volunteer work is also a deciding factor for applicants. "You have to have something in your heart for the underadvantaged," she commented.

It was a miracle of scheduling, but after five and a half years of schooling, she completed her training, and in May of this year, graduated from Augsburg. She recalled one of her proudest moments when at her graduation ceremony, her 13-year-old son came to her and, with tears in his eyes said, "Mom, I'm so proud of you."

In August of this year, Thelen will have completed 15 months of residencies, which included several months at various medical facilities, including St. Paul Ramsey, St. Gabriel's in Little Falls, and Central Minnesota Surgeons. She is now in the last few months of a family practice preceptorship at Paynesville Area Health Care System, and when completed in August, will take the medical board examination.

With a family at home, she's in a career field that fits her needs and desires. "I don't carry all the responsibilities of a physician," Thelen said, "and that's something I really do appreciate. Physician assistants are also here to free up the physician. We help lighten that load."

Thelen commented that since she's continued her own education, she's noticed her children try harder at their school work. "A "C" isn't acceptable," she said, "and I'm not one whose grades come easy."

In the future, Thelen mentioned she'd like to go to high schools and share her experiences with juniors and seniors. She wants to encourage them to finish their schooling, and that it's never too late. Not only as a physician assistant, but also a mother, Thelen will have many experiences to reflect on.

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