ATC to PA-C by David Whisenant

January 1st, 2014, Pasadena California.  The 100th Rose Bowl game, was played between Michigan State University and Stanford. I will never forget the emotions pouring out of Michigan State University’s head coach Mark Dantonio when with 1:46 left on the clock he ran right passed me down the sideline to emphatically call a “timeout”.  This came right before one of the most iconic moment’s in MSU football history.  A key defensive stop on 4th down lead the Spartans to victory over the Cardinals.  At the time, I was a postgraduate athletic trainer for the MSU football team.  This just happened to be the last official timeout I took part in as an athletic trainer on the sidelines.

Even though I am no longer on the sidelines, timeouts still play an important role for me. In the operating room, a “timeout” is called as a controlled stoppage right before a surgical case is to begin to confirm vital information about the patient and procedure.  Even today, working as an orthopedic surgical physician assistant, when I hear a “timeout” in the OR, it often brings back memories of days on the sidelines.

You may wonder, how did I go from an athletic trainer on the sideline of the Rose Bowl to being a PA-C in the operating room?  Well, as the football season wound down, I was approached by a colleague of mine from grad school who was working as an AT in a physician practice setting. He had a unique opportunity at his clinic for an athletic training fellowship at the Andrews Institute in Gulf Breeze, Florida.  We talked details, which included first assisting in the operating room, learning how to manage a physician’s practice, and getting to rotate with various physicians at the Institute.  At first, this was a hard sell. Having just finished a season with MSU football that included both a Rose Bowl and Big Ten championship, it was going to be hard to completely leave athletics.  Through our discussions, he posed it to me this way, “it is a one year fellowship.  At worst, if you hate it, you can go back to athletics with some new knowledge and great experiences”.  

It was a tough decision, but a few weeks later I was at the Andrews Institute starting an athletic training fellowship. Dr. James Andrews has been an advocate for athletic trainers and the profession for years.  A tribute to his advocacy is that he, along with nearly every other physician at the institute, employs athletic trainers in their practice.  Needless to say, I was in great company with great educators and there were endless opportunities to learn.  The fellowship included extensive training on numerous aspects of a physicians practice. Physical exam skills, x-ray and advanced imaging reading, billing, coding, and surgical assisting just to name a few.  These trainings were delivered through workshops, use of cadavers, lectures, and of course hands on practice side by side with physicians and other athletic trainers.

As the months went by, and near the end of the fellowship, I was offered a full-time job by one of the attending physicians at the Andrews Institute.  Unlike my previous career decision, this one was easy. Through the fellowship, I came to thoroughly enjoy working in a physician practice setting, and gladly accepted the position.  

The next couple of years working full time as an athletic trainer in a physician practice were extremely rewarding.  As I have seen both firsthand, an athletic trainer in a physician practice setting is every bit as valuable to that team as an athletic trainer is to an athletic team.  Sure, sometimes I thought about being back on the sidelines, but this setting was a better fit for me.  I did not have to work nights or weekends, be on call, or travel.  It did however come with its own challenges.  The practice I worked in was very busy, with sometimes 60+ patients in clinic a day, and over 800 surgical cases a year with as many as 15 in a day.  This was a lot to manage, both mentally between paperwork, phone calls, orders, insurance, documentation, etc. and physically with sometimes 10+ hours on your feet without a chance to sit down during an operative day.  All of this would not have been able to be done safely and efficiently without an extraordinary team.  From the receptionist to physician, we worked as one unit.  I was fortunate to have been a part of this team, and had I not gotten into PA school, I would likely still be working there. 

So, why did I leave to become a PA?  Ever since I was an undergrad athletic training student, I had been exposed to PA’s.  I have always thought highly of them and their profession, but never seriously considered pursuing the profession until I was in the clinical setting.  There, I got to work with PA’s on a more intimate level.  My consideration changed the more I learned. Athletic trainers in a physician practice often work in a similar role to that of a PA-C. I knew I wanted to stay in a clinical setting, but I desired to enhance my clinical knowledge and skill set as well as my opportunities and abilities to practice more autonomously.  I just needed a bit of guidance.

A mentor and friend of mine, who has been an orthopedic PA-C for 15 years, was in a similar situation to mine prior to going to PA school.  Although not an athletic trainer, he was working as a respiratory therapist for a few years in his mid 20’s.  He was making a good living and enjoyed his job, but he too desired more.  One day he and I got to talking about our respective roles and career paths.  The more we talked about my desire to stay in a clinical setting, but also advance myself professionally, he said to me, “if you are at all thinking about going, and don’t at least try, you will regret it in 5 years. But, if you try, and especially if you get in, you will never regret it.”  I took his advice and applied.  

27 months later I finished PA school and found myself back in an orthopedic practice.  PA school is undoubtably challenging and can be quite stressful. Without question, my clinical athletic training background gave me the preparation I needed to handle stress and adapt to new demands. Had it not been for my clinical athletic training experience, I likely would not be were I am.  That experience helped me stand out to my employer and gave me the ability to start seeing patients on my own much sooner than a PA without the same athletic training background.

I am very fortunate for the experiences I’ve had, and had it not been for the mentors, educators, and relationships along the way, I would not be where I am today.  For these reasons, I am an advocate for the athletic training profession, and especially athletic trainers in the physician practice setting.  Even though I don’t currently practice as an athletic trainer, it is an important part of my career and why I still keep my certification in good standing with the BOC.  I am proud to carry the credentials PA-C, ATC. 

1 Comment

  1. TaberKate on June 25, 2020 at 9:29 pm

    Thanks David for your unique perspective. Once an athletic trainer always an athletic trainer!