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First class in Idaho State University/College of Idaho PA partnership to graduate May 21

May 20, 2016

Twenty years after earning her undergraduate degree in elementary education, Katrina Merrell decided to go back to school and start a new career—a decision that led her to a master’s program in physician assistant studies.

Balancing a strenuous school workload with being a mother and a wife, Merrell has conquered every obstacle over the past two years

And May 21, she’ll join her 11 classmates as the first graduating class from the joint physician assistant studies program created by The College of Idaho and Idaho State University.

“The first class is kind of like your first kid,” said Marv Sparrell, the program’s associate director who is based at the ISU-Meridian Health Science Center. “They break down all of the barriers; they stretch the limits and set the flavor for the whole program. This first class, they’re a special group of people.”

A physician assistant works on teams with physicians, surgeons and other health care workers, helping to examine and treat patients. Physician assistants have become a necessary part of the medical workforce as an aging population is creating doctor shortages. Plus, physician assistants or PAs can enter the workforce after two intensive years in a master’s program.

In 1995, ISU started the state’s only PA program at its main campus in Pocatello. Since that time, the university has added 30 seats at the ISU-Meridian Health Science Center--and thanks to a partnership with College of Idaho—another 12 students on the Caldwell campus. The C of I students entered the program in 2014.

All site locations are linked through distance learning technology, ensuring students at the Pocatello, Meridian and Caldwell sites receive the same classroom education and training.

As Idaho ranks last in the nation for the number of physicians per capita, according to the Idaho Department of Labor, the expansion of the PA program at the C of I helps to fill the growing need for skilled medical professionals.

Beginning her studies to become a PA was a prospect that excited Merrell and made her nervous. She was “cautiously optimistic” about the challenge. She and her fellow students spent 40 hours in the classroom per week their first year.

That intensity is the biggest challenge for students, said David Talford, clinical assistant professor. It’s also a process which produces visible growth and maturity in each student over two years.

After a year in the classroom, the 12 spent their second year in clinical rotations. Each student does eight rotations: emergency medicine, internal medicine, outpatient medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, psychiatry, surgery and one elective.

“Once they get into rotations during the second year, then they can start to see the light a little bit more because they’re out actually practicing what they’ve learned,” Talford said.

For Merrell, that has led to several poignant moments including treating her first patient, seeing rare diseases and experiencing the death of a patient for the first time.

While working in the trauma emergency room, emergency medical technicians came in performing CPR on a patient. Merrell’s heart was racing. She knew she needed to cut the patient’s clothes off and check his pulse. She didn’t even finish cutting his pants before the doctor had called everyone away and declared the patient dead.

“It was kind of surreal, because it happened so quickly,” Merrell said. “It makes you stop and think about life.”

By going back to school, Merrell decided to shoot for the moon. Along the way, she inspired her 17-year-old daughter, who is proud of what her mom has accomplished. The PA faculty, too, is proud of the job Merrell and her classmates have done pioneering the expansion campus at The College of Idaho.

“It’s like seeing your first kid go off to school,” Sparrell said of the first graduating class. “In a way, you’re a proud parent. And I know they’re going to be great PAs.”