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ATSU-ASHS adjunct faculty member leading remote COVID-19 response team

With a passion for remote and austere environments, Melinda Rawcliffe, PA-C, ’07, adjunct faculty at A.T. Still University’s Arizona School of Health Sciences (ATSU-ASHS), is no stranger to practicing medicine far from her Arizona home. After working in locations like Iraq, Afghanistan, Suriname, Russia, and Trinidad and Tobago, she now finds herself in the distant and cold Arctic Circle.

Rawcliffe started working with a Fortune 100 company as their physician assistant and planned to stay in Alaska while the company proceeded through its exploration season. Little did she know her season would be extended, and she would be on the front line of defense against the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, leading a COVID-19 response team as Western North Slope On-Site Chief Medical Officer.

“With COVID-19 hitting, the biggest point is to try and keep the core workforce that is here, healthy,” Rawcliffe said. “And more importantly, away from all the native villages, because we do not want to spread anything.”

Rawcliffe went from seeing patients on a regular basis, to a quick transition into disaster planning mode. She pulled a team together and hit the ground running, as isolation alone would not be the answer. Being prepared for proper disinfecting techniques and doing critical research to gain better understanding of what they were facing were just a few of the hurdles that Rawcliffe faced in the early days of the pandemic.

As a result of the initial planning efforts, the workforce has remained healthy, with no reported cases of the virus. Rawcliffe is able to start transitioning from her disaster planning mode, to figuring out what is necessary to keep her workforce healthy.

“I feel that is where my background with ATSU has come into play, having been a student that was lucky enough to go through a phenomenal program, but also a professor to teach there,” Rawcliffe said. “I am reaching in the back of my mind, remembering all those things from the pulmonology class we just taught, or community health, and trying to bring all that full circle.”

Rawcliffe is also a part of ATSU’s inaugural Doctor of Medical Science (DMSc) class and is about halfway through the program. Learning how to conduct original research and complete literature reviews is a big part of her motivation for furthering her education with the DMSc program.

Rawcliffe is Arizona’s representative with the American Academy of Physician Assistants’ House of Delegates. She is humbled to be working closely with some of the strongest leaders in the physician assistant community.

“These guys and gals aren’t going to be around forever,” Rawcliffe said. “We need to start bringing up that next generation of leaders to continue to fight the good fight and make sure we are prepared.”

That is exactly what Rawcliffe intends to do, and she is grateful to be learning from one of her mentors, Randy Danielsen, PhD, PA-C Emeritus, DFAAPA, professor ATSU-ASHS DMSc. The coursework and leadership training in the DMSc program have prepared Rawcliffe to lead the COVID-19 response team in her remote location.

“I feel like the DMSc program has prepared me to get to this point and pushed me forward in a much more rapid succession that I ever thought I would be comfortable doing,” she said.

Rawcliffe looks forward to the paradigm shift that should occur as a result of the pandemic, with innovation being rewarded and the stresses of healthcare work being addressed. Through her colleagues, Rawcliffe has seen some of the struggles healthcare workers are facing, including workers who are furloughed due to lack of patients.

“Don’t give up, don’t get frustrated,” Rawcliffe said. “We are going to get through this together. I know it has almost become a cliché to say we are going to get through this together, but we are, and we need to band together.”

At the end of May, after several extra months in Alaska, Rawcliffe was able to safely make her return trip home.


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