Five PAs talk about their careers and their paths to the medical field

Published 1:41 pm Saturday, October 10, 2020

Each October, a week is set aside to recognize the contribution and work of physicians assistants in today’s medical community.

According to the American Association of Physicians Assistants, “PAs are medical professionals who diagnose illness, develop and manage treatment plans, prescribe medications and often serve as a patient’s principal healthcare provider. With thousands of hours of medical training, PAs are versatile and collaborative. PAs practice in every state and in every medical setting and specialty, improving healthcare access and quality.

In recognition of National Physicians Assistants Week, The Post interviewed the five PAs who work at Medical Associates of Vicksburg on South Frontage Road.


Baleigh Ford

I graduated in 2015 from Mississippi College and I’ve been practicing here in Vicksburg for five years. Dr. Pierce III gave me a job right out of school. So I have been here since and don’t plan on leaving. 

I am from Meridian, actually, Enterprise, which is a really small town outside of Meridian. The access to medicine there was very limited. When I went to Pearl River Community College I played softball and that is where I had a lot of exposure to medicine through injuries, unfortunately, with softball, (there are a lot of injuries) and I decided I wanted to be a physician assistant after I met a physician assistant there. 


What’s the most gratifying part of the job?

Oh my God, patient care. Through COVID we had to do telemedicine and I was like having anxiety. I did not like my job as much then because I was sitting behind a desk on a phone call with my patients. It was not the same as sitting in a room with that one on one time actually getting to do my job and do a physical exam and talk to them. That’s the most gratifying part of my job, 100 percent, telemedicine is not for me.


What’s the hardest part of the job?

Paperwork and all of our patients know that the documentation is just so much. But you know as part of the job and as part of every job these days, there is a lot of paperwork, for sure. 


How do you explain to people what you do?

As a physician assistant, we go to school 30 months straight. I think we have like a week off for Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. We are trained off of the medical model, which is made to complement how physicians are trained. Our schooling is supposed to complement medical school, even though we don’t get four years in school and then residency afterward, they cram as much of it as possible into two and a half years, and nothing is online, everything is hands-on. We’re not allowed to work during school so the only thing we are focused on is becoming a physician assistant and learning everything that we can so we can take the best care of our patients and to play a vital role in medicine.


Melanie Furr

So I’ve been a physician assistant for five years. I graduated from Mississippi College in 2015. It’s a two and a half year program. I initially worked at St Dominic’s in cardiothoracic surgery and I’ve been here at Medical Associates for about three years. 

My hometown is Ridgeland. I went to Madison Central and transferred to Ridgeland High School where I graduated in 2004.

So I’ve been used to this area for quite some time, Vicksburg was in our district. I played sports in high school so I was pretty familiar with Vicksburg even before I came here. Initially, I was an X-ray tech. I went to X-ray school at the University of Mississippi Medical Center when I was 19. I worked for about a year and realized I really did love medicine and I just wanted something a little bit more with patient involvement. And so I went back to UMC and got my degree, my bachelor’s degree, and then of course my master’s degree as well.

It’s really medicine, to me, is almost like a service. You know, I’m from Mississippi. I know Mississippi lacks medical providers and I really like to help people. So, I want to try to kind of give back to my state, give back to my community and try to help as many people as I can along the way.


What’s the most gratifying part of the job?

The most gratifying part of my job is seeing someone who maybe hasn’t taken great care of themselves and being able to get them in the clinic, educate them and teach them things that they need to do for their own health; seeing that turn around for them for me is just the ultimate and makes you feel so good. That’s especially true for someone with diabetes. We have a lot of diabetes in Mississippi. We have a lot of hypertension in Mississippi, and a lot of people are not managed at all. Some are mismanaged. But seeing someone who probably wouldn’t have lived, past the age of 55 or 60 and then you can help them so they can now live to be 90 to 100 and live a good quality of life. You know, in my state, Mississippi, that’s just the most gratifying thing.


What’s the hardest part of the job?

The hardest part of my job is probably seeing someone who could be helped, but they’re not willing to help themselves. I tell people, I’m the coach and they’re the player, but I can only tell them what to do. I can’t go home and help them do it themselves. They’ve at some point got to step up and help themselves.


How do you explain to people what you do?

So as a physician assistant, I am a health care provider. Very similar to like an MD or nurse practitioner, I do see my home patients every day. I do work collaboratively with a physician but I also manage all of my own patients; those with diabetes, hypertension, and all their other medical issues. It’s very similar to just any other medical provider. And you know with a being a physician assistant, we do go back and forth from here to the clinic to the hospital as well, and we’re able to work collaboratively with other medical providers. We try to give patients the best care that we can, especially in Mississippi, since there is a lack of medical providers, especially in rural areas. Warren County is considered a rural area in Mississippi.


Morgan Caulfield

I’ve been here for two years now. I am from South Florida, Fort Meyers. I went to undergrad at the University of Florida and majored in history. I spent six years working to get into the military and then ended up coming to Mississippi College for physician assistant school. My mother’s a physician assistant. She’s practiced for 26 years in internal medicine in Florida. I always loved medicine. I love the ability to help people and really be there in their hardest times to try to help see somebody through it.

[Mississippi] is where God called me. He brought me out of Florida; brought me up here to Mississippi College. I spent a good bit of my time in school here in Vicksburg and just said this is where I want to be; this is where I need to be. 


What’s the most gratifying part of the job?

I love being able to watch somebody smile, even when they’re having one of the worst moments of their life. You know, trying to find a bit of joy in a dark moment and being there to help them through it, even if it’s just a simple hug. 


What’s the hardest part of the job?

The hardest part is having to look at family members and patients giving them bad news … telling them we may not be able to do anything for the patient.


How do you explain to people what you do?

What we do is we see, we diagnose, we treat people, we work on a team model with our other physician assistants and nurse practitioner friends. We work closely as a team with all advanced care providers as a group effort to take care of patients.

If you know there’s something we need help on, there’s always somebody we can go to and ask. That’s the great part of how we’re set up. We’re trained on a physician model and approach to medicine, which makes our approach similar in how we treat patients, how we go about diagnostics and in long-term planning, you know, with the goal of always curing the disease or getting through something.  


Heather Anderson

I’ve been a physician assistant for five years now. I went to school at Mississippi College and graduated in 2015. I’m from Quitman, La. 

I liked the program at Mississippi College and how it was a 30-month program. It went in-depth with clinical rotations. And so I came over here to try that out. I got offered a job with Dr. Dan Edney right out of school and so I came to work here and never left. 

I wanted to go into medicine since I was in fourth grade. I’ve always just had a love of the human body and learning more about it. My goal, ever since I was in elementary school, was to be in the medical field, and being a physician assistant seemed to work the best for me. It allowed for a family life along with being able to work in any specialty I wanted to and be able to change it anytime. 


What’s the most gratifying part of the job?

It’s most gratifying to get to interact with your patients and get to know them, especially in primary care, you see them regularly and you get to build that relationship with them. Often my patients check on my life as I am checking on them. They want to hear about how my son is doing. Every time I see them and we talk and share pictures and so it’s just fun to build that relationship with your patients. 


What’s the hardest part of the job?

The hardest part is when you have a horrible cancer diagnosis. They are your patients. It’s hard when they are so sick and die, or unexpectedly die on you. When you learn that, and you have that relationship with them, you can take it hard.


How do you explain to people what you do?

In the state of Mississippi, physician assistants aren’t that well known, so I describe it as we’re just like a nurse practitioner, but were trained by doctors where you learn more on the medical model. We can do everything the physician can and prescribe medications, do lab work, do small test procedures.


Johanna Kimberl:

So actually, a lot of us who work here together graduated together. I graduated in December 2015 so I’m going on my fifth year.

I’m from Atlanta. I came out here for school because physicians assistant school is really competitive and Mississippi College said yes, first. I didn’t know anybody. I came to this area and then fell in love with it and stayed. 

I was a photographer and I did other things first. I had a really hard time paying my bills and ended up working at a doctor’s office so I could get benefits, and I worked there for seven years. I loved it and I became really close to the physicians assistants that worked there. Once I saw what they did, I was like, “man, I know I can do that,” so I learned what it took, got through all my pre-requisite classes and then went for it.


What’s the most gratifying part of the job?

Oh my goodness, seeing my patients; seeing them happy, seeing them feel better, getting their numbers down where we want them to be, and seeing how excited they are. I get excited with them. I love being part of the community here, growing up in a huge city …  you come here and people actually not only know who you are, they appreciate what you do and you become part of their family.


What’s the hardest part of the job?

The hardest part is always when we have to give somebody a diagnosis that’s not pleasant. That part hurts me a lot. And then, struggling with insurance. We know that’s the way of the world. It’s hard when you know somebody can’t afford the treatment they need, or they’re getting an insurance obstacle or something like that. It breaks my heart because we have the ability to do these things and we can’t get it to these people.


How do you explain to people what you do?

So basically there’s a hierarchy in medicine. There are doctors and then of course nurses. They created a mid-level provider position. Nurse practitioners, fill that role and physicians assistants fill that role. So, we take two paths to get to the same spot. But the bottom line is if you see us and we take care of all your stuff and you can’t remember if I’m Joanna, Dr. Joanna or whatever, then I’m doing my job, because I’m going to be able to do all the things my doctor that I work with can do. We work as a team. I can consult with him, and we will treat people together. But most of the time, I operate my own schedule and I can check on preventative exams. I can write prescriptions, and I can adjust medicines if we need to. And so, for the most part, I’m able to do all the same things the doctor can do. I make it easier for the doctor to practice medicine.

About Courtland Wells

Courtland Wells is a staff photographer at The Vicksburg Post. He is a native of Tuscaloosa, Ala. and graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s degree in Photojournalism. Following graduation, he started at The Vicksburg Post in the fall of 2016. Courtland has won numerous awards through the Mississippi Associated Press Managing Editors and the Mississippi Press Association. His work has also been featured in the New York Times and Washington Post as well as other national publications. Courtland is a member of the Vicksburg Young Professionals.

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