Our PA Program Reaches 50-Year Milestone
The year of 1969 was an eventful time in American history. In July, Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon, followed by Buzz Aldrin moments later. The iconic Woodstock music festival was held in August. In November, Sesame Street, one of television’s most celebrated programs, made its debut.
In Winston-Salem, 1969 was also the year that Bowman Gray School of Medicine – now Wake Forest School of Medicine – launched its Physician Assistant (PA) program. Today, the program is ranked 7th in the nation for 2020 by U.S. News & World Report’s Graduate School Rankings, up from 9th the previous year.
From its inception, the PA program has focused on offering students a patient-centered medical education that includes real-life cases and clinical problem-solving. On October 19, the school will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the PA program with a celebration for alumni, students and supporters.
Kelly Taylor, a military veteran and retired PA, was a student in the inaugural class. His journey to the program included four years of service in the U.S. Air Force, where he trained to become a medical technician. After completing his years of service and working briefly at Reynolds Research and Development, Kelly heard about the PA program by word-of-mouth. He jumped at the chance to be among the first students because it aligned with his duties in the Air Force and life-long interest in the medical profession – something that initially seemed out of reach given the cost of medical school.
“I was in charge of the emergency room in the Air Force,” said Kelly, who was stationed in Charleston, S.C. “This work was basically the same thing I did as a PA.”
In 1971, Kelly completed the program with a concentration in General Didactics. He recalls all of the hands-on learning experiences.
“We had rotations and paired with medical students and residents to treat patients,” Kelly said.
Before graduation, Kelly accepted a contract with Forsyth Emergency Services to join Forsyth Medical Center as a PA, where he spent his entire 43-year career before retiring six years ago. Kelly said his work as a PA was similar to a physician’s—he diagnosed and treated patients for a range of issues.
Steven Collins, MD, has known Kelly since 1984, when Steven was a resident in Emergency Medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. He also worked with Kelly at Forsyth. “Kelly was the first PA hired by Forsyth Emergency Services, and worked there for about 43 years,” said Steven. “He truly was an amazing PA. He touched so many lives over the years. He taught me a lot, and I always relied on him for certain orthopaedic issues and suturing.”
“Being among the first PAs was not fun,” he said candidly. “They [the doctors] gave us a lot of grief the first few years. They had no idea what a physician assistant was, and didn’t know we had a license and could order medicine. It was different then dealing with the private medical community.”
Things became smoother for Kelly as his skills became more known. For example, he shared one memorable patient experience where he worked closely with doctors to treat a young man who severed his neck and both arteries after tripping and falling through a glass window at the hospital. Kelly alerted the doctors and everyone jumped in to stop the bleeding successfully.
What also stands out for Kelly is how the profession changed during the course of his four-decade career, especially with the progression of technology and electronic medical records systems such as Epic.
In all, Kelly credits his learning from the PA program as a contributing factor to his long career in the profession. “Because of my military experience, I knew how to do things, but I didn’t know the basics behind what I was doing,” he said. “The school really helped me with the anatomy and physiology of my work.”