Whitney Hewitt: A passion for patient care during a global pandemic
Despite the lingering reality of the Covid-19 Global Health Pandemic, Whitney Hewitt said she has finally been able to get back to her favorite part of being a student in the Physician Assistant (PA) program Radford University Carilion (RUC).
“I would go out on a limb and say most, if not all, PA students get into medicine because they are passionate about patient care,” Hewitt said. “That patient interaction is the best. I like making patients laugh, and even more, when they make me laugh. It is amazing to see patients improve, hear about their successes or help them through their struggles.”
Hewitt, a second-year PA students who expects to graduate in December 2021, said that during the first, or didactic, year of study in the PA program, it can sometimes be hard to remember the “why” behind what students are learning—to actually care for people. It is only during the second, or clinical, year that RUC PA students get to work directly with patients.
“Being able to talk to patients and their families, and be a small part in their care, even if it’s just a learning opportunity, is wonderful,” Hewitt said. “It’s one thing to learn about carotid bruits, for example, and something completely different to actually hear one. It helps bring the whole picture together for me.”
Hewitt and her fellow PA students, however, have experienced anything but a normal journey through their program.
From the Midwest to the Mid-Atlantic
Hewitt’s road to RUC began with a big leap. In April 2017, after she graduated from her small private undergraduate college in Minneapolis, MN, Hewitt moved from the snowy Midwest to the relatively balmy city of Richmond, VA.
“It was basically a shot in the dark,” Hewitt recalled. “I strongly dislike the snow and cold of the Midwest and wanted something different. It was great to be in a new place where I could gain experience while not having to deal with as much of the winter weather.”
For two years, Hewitt worked in Richmond, gaining patient contact hours, which are a requirement for all PA schools. She says she applied to several schools, but RUC shot to the top of her list because of Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) score rates, national ratings and location. It was the in-person interview that sealed the deal, though.
“You can really tell the ‘personality’ of a program based on the students and their relationship with the faculty during those interviews,” Hewitt remembered. “RUC had great relationships between the students and faculty. It felt like a family with only 42 students in the program. After the interview, I felt strongly it would be a good fit for me.”
In 2019, Hewitt took the next step in her journey to becoming a PA, moving to Roanoke to start school at RUC.
Learning During a Global Pandemic
Little did Hewitt know that shortly after relocating and starting PA school, she and her fellow students would have to adjust to a whole new way of virtual learning. In the spring of 2020, classes, labs and other learning experiences went fully online when the COVID-19 global pandemic emerged. It was a drastic change for a group of students who had strongly bonded during their first semester together.
“There is something very isolating about not being able to all be together as a class,” Hewitt said. “When we were all in person and had a big test, we could adapt a ‘we’re all in this together’ attitude. Knowing we weren’t the only ones feeling that stress made such a difference. We could lean on each other for support and know we weren’t alone.”
Hewitt said that one of the major draws of PA programs is the sense of teamwork that is inherently part of the curriculum and, ultimately, the profession. She said that the PA profession is all about being on a patient care team. This aspect of the program had to evolve during the pandemic.
“We like working together, not alone,” Hewitt said. “I think most of us are still close as a class, but it’s harder to interact with everyone virtually. It was up to us to figure out how to keep helping those in need despite the challenges of the pandemic. I think we’ve been able to do that in many ways.”
For example, Hewitt and some of her fellow students work with organizations like the National Student Response Network (NSRN), a group that utilizes health professions students to support COVID relief efforts. Hewitt currently serves as the Virginia State Coordinator for the grass-roots organization.
“NSRN has helped with everything from COVID testing centers, contact tracing, delivering PPE and vaccination efforts, to delivering groceries and online tutoring,” Hewitt said.
Hewitt said her specific role in NSRN has been to reach out to schools in Virginia with health profession programs for recruitment of volunteers. She then sets up opportunities for these volunteers across the Commonwealth by reaching out to underserved areas or organizations. Among the groups she has worked with has been the Student Nurses Organization at RUC.
“Being part of an organization like NSRN has been a great way to feel less helpless as a student during a global pandemic,” Hewitt said.
In addition to NSRN, Hewitt stays involved through participation in several organizations related to her studies. She is a student delegate as part of the national PA organization, the American Academy of PAs (AAPA), and gets the opportunity to take part in AAPA's House of Delegates annual meeting.
“I love getting to represent PA students on the national level, while being a part of policy making,” she said.
Hewitt also serves as a Student Liaison for the Association Of Physician Assistants in OB/GYN (APAOG), stemming from her interest in the field of Women’s Health, and she is a member of Virginia’s Medical Reserve Corps.
Choosing a Career Path
This spring, Hewitt and her fellow students have been able to get back to a more normal routine in their program.
“We were able to start our in-person clinical rotations in January, working directly with patients,” Hewitt said. “Hopefully things will go smoothly for the rest of the year.”
At RUC, PA students get to spend their entire second year in clinical rotations, which helps them expand their knowledge and choose the specialty they may go into. Hewitt said that aspect of the program was one of the selling points when she was researching where she would earn her degree.
“For a long time, I thought I would end up in Pediatrics,” Hewitt said. “However, in the last five or six years, I have become passionate about Women’s Health. Access to care, preventative medicine, public health, not to mention health disparities, are all important issues that need to be addressed. To be able to play a role in some of these issues, advocating for the improvement of education, preventative care, and health disparities would be very fulfilling.”
Hewitt also likes that the specialty offers a good balance of clinic, surgery, procedures and continuity of care. However, her mind isn’t made up completely and she still has awhile to make a final decision. In the meantime, she is excited to spend the next few months working with patients.
“If one thing clinical year has taught me over the last few months,” Hewitt said, “it is that I have really missed actual patient interactions and not just learning from lecture. So, I suspect I may spend a few years practicing before I make another leap.”