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Physician assistants an integral part of medical care delivery here and beyond

This is National Physician Assistant Week, and the town is celebrating
by: Chase Allgood Physician assistants Michelle Stewart (left) and Joy Gephart work closely with doctors at Maple Street Clinic in Forest Grove. Oct. 6-12 is National Physician Assistant Week.

There are doctors, there are patients and there are physician assistants - and ultimately, there can be quite a bit of crossover in the way each participates in health care.

That's according to a pair of medical doctors and their colleagues, two physician assistants who work at the Maple Street Clinic in Forest Grove.

'Physician assistants have become a vital part of the delivery of health care in the last 20 years,' said Dr. Conley Lynch, a family practitioner at Maple Street Clinic.

The local PAs, Michelle Stewart and Joy Gephart, both are products of Pacific University's School of Physician Assistant Studies in Forest Grove, one of only two such programs in Oregon.

The other is housed at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.

Dr. Douglas Holmes, another Maple Street family practitioner, appreciated Gephart and Stewart for the 'medical skills, sensitivity and compassion they bring' to their work.

His praise is timely: Oct. 6-12 is National Physician Assistant Week, which commemorates the anniversary of the nation's first graduating PA class at Duke University on Oct. 6, 1967.

'Trust and familiarity'

A growing wave of PA-compatible clinics and hospitals are sharing in the hoopla.

'Our PAs are available to see patients on a daily basis,' said Holmes. 'Now that they have been at our office for many years, often patients will call and specifically ask to see them as they have developed a relationship of trust and familiarity.'

Gephart earned a master's degree from Pacific in 2006 and Stewart received her degree in 2000, the second year the university graduated PAs. According to spokesman Joe Lang, Pacific initiated its PA program - which requires students to log 27 months of classes over seven consecutive semesters - in 1997.

In 2010, the program graduated 42 newly-minted physician assistants. Also last year, Judy Ortiz succeeded Randy Randolph as director of the School of PA Studies.

Rewarding profession

For Stewart, whose graduating class at Pacific boasted only 18 students, the profession has come full circle.

'I have had the opportunity to realize my dream and achieve my goal of working in a rewarding profession which affords me the privilege of caring for many wonderful people,' said Stewart, who was accepted into Pacific's program after her sons graduated from high school.

Once she landed her job at Maple Street Clinic, Stewart and Lynch initially mentored PA program students at Pacific together. Six years ago, Stewart began serving as a preceptor by herself. One of her first students was Gephart.

Both women are now paying all that forward. Stewart and Gephart work side-by-side at Maple Street Clinic while collaborating outside their office by mentoring a PA student together.

Gephart, a New Zealand native who majored in exercise and sports science at Brigham Young University in Hawaii and worked as a certified nurse assistant before focusing on her PA degree, said she always knew she wanted to 'make a difference in others' lives through medicine.'

A Carlton resident, Gephart is happy she chose the latter.

'I love working as a PA,' she said. 'Every day [is] different, with a new patient and a new set of challenges.'