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40th physician assistant class graduates

Nearly three dozen students in the two-year Physician Assistant Program in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences graduated on Wednesday, in a ceremony that underscored the evolving nature of the field and the importance of committing to patient care.

“The world is going to be very different,” said keynote speaker, Dr. J. Stephen Bohan, the executive vice chair and clinical director of emergency medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Between when you applied to this program to today, a lot has changed.”

Dr. J. Stephen Bohan delivered the ceremony’s keynote address.

[media-credit id=19 align=”alignleft” width=”230″][/media-credit]The biggest change occurred recently, Bohan said, when Massachusetts altered the laws governing physician assistants, giving them the same primary care status afforded to physicians and nurse practitioners. Leveling the playing field, Bohan noted, increases the importance of medical professionals working as hard as they can to improve the lives of their patients.

“Every single day, I’m less and less interested in the letters after a person’s name,” Bohan said. “I’m interested in if they have integrity and hustle.”

The director of the Physician Assistant Program, clinical professor Rosann Ippolito, praised this year’s 34 graduates for their commitment to the broader community. More than 1,000 health care professionals have graduated from the master’s degree program since its inception in 1971.

“It was a lot of work, but you not only made time for yourselves but you made time to reach out and help others,” Ippolito said. “I hope that you continue with that as you enter your professional lives.”

PA graduate Bianca Belcher introduced a slideshow of photos from the previous two years. She assured faculty, family members and friends who packed the Curry Student Center Ballroom that she and her peers had plenty of fun to balance out the hard work.

“From seeing each other half-naked in those first weeks of clinical diagnosis to giving each other IVs for the first time, we sure did a lot together,” Belcher said. “Though we may have made it seem like this was all work and no play in the last 24 months, we did manage to have a lot of fun.”

Christine Canning, a 1989 graduate of the Physician Assistant Program and the first PA hired to work at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute also spoke during thr ceremony, discussing the need to stop data and statistics from getting in the way of patient needs.

Canning, the director of clinical trials for Dana Farber’s Cancer Vaccine Center, illustrated her point by telling the story of her 80-year-old father. Earlier this year he was released from the hospital a day after his pacemaker surgery, she said, even though he felt like something wasn’t right.

Soon after his release his condition worsened, requiring far more care than he otherwise would have needed. “This was the result of a person looking without seeing, hearing without listening, valuing an algorithm over a person,” Canning said. “No Northeastern PA student ever would have discharged a patient in that condition. I know it because I’ve seen it.”

The story, however, provided a valuable lesson for PAs about to enter the field as professionals. “Lose the personal and you lose the person—you lose the patient and you lose yourself,” Canning said. “You’re now part of a proud tradition here at Northeastern and as a fellow PA, I welcome you to our community of healers.”

Suzanne Greenberg established Northeastern’s PA program in 1971.

The PA graduation ceremony also honored Suzanne Greenberg, Bouvé’s current associate dean for graduate education who established Northeastern’s physician assistant program in 1971 and served as its director until 2006, with the department’s Outstanding Service Award.

“Sue’s contributions are legendary,” Ippolito said. “Many of them we now take for granted. She spearheaded the 1973 PA practice act, the law that allowed PAs to practice medicine in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Years later, she was also involved in the passage of prescriptive practice legislation.”

The PA professional has grown in the more than four decades since Greenberg began her career at Northeastern, with many of her students helping plot its still-evolving course.

“It’s very rewarding and exciting to see young people come in eager, enthusiastic and energetic — and yes, often a bit nervous — and come out two years later as really mature individuals,” Greenberg said. “That’s the real reward that comes with teaching these students, something that makes it far more than a job.”