News: Physician assistant fulfilled by caring for deployed troops, local Iraqis
Story by Sgt. Mike MacLeod
AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq – During a clinical rotation at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, physician assistant student Jessica Larson made up her mind to join the Army.
At the Center for the Intrepid, Larson worked with wounded warriors who had come back from war – amputees – and from them she drew a singular inspiration.
“They were still proud to be in the Army, and they were working really hard to rehabilitate themselves and to do the best they had with what they had,” said Larson, now a PA and first lieutenant with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Advise and Assist Brigade, deployed in Iraq since August 2009.
“‘This is what life dealt me, this is what I am working with, and now it’s time for me to move on. There is no feeling sorry for yourself here.’ That was the attitude that all the Soldiers had,” said Larson. “It was really inspiring.”
At 28, with 10 years invested in a career designing airports for domestic and international markets, the Chicago native decided she wanted more than a big paycheck and a corner office.
“I asked myself, if I could start over and do anything at all, what would I do? And I realized that I’ve always wanted to be in medicine and never had the guts to try it,” she said.
Larson prayed about the decision. For several years, she had volunteered at the local hospital. Sometimes she would sit in on team meetings with the doctor, dietitian, PA, physical therapist and the internist to discuss how a patient was progressing.
“I loved that environment and I loved the role that the PA and the doc had,” she said.
Of all the other career options, medicine was the one thing that resonated and stuck with her.
However, the Army was never part of the plan until she “met someone who knew someone” during PA school clinical rotations. The Army intrigued her, but Larson wanted to be sure she could handle being around the worst of combat injuries before committing. She was not expecting what she found.
“One guy had both of his legs blown off so high that they had to remove his testicles,” Larson recalled. “When I was sitting in a session with him and his wife, and he was saying that his unborn children were victims of this war, I was like, holy crap, this guy gave not just the physical aspect of his legs, but his legacy and [his] and his wife’s ability to have children.
“How could I sit back and not want to provide medical coverage for someone like that? That is when I made my decision to join the Army. If these guys could give up multiple limbs for their country, the least I could do was to give three years of my life.”
Not too long after that, the newly-minted PA found herself caring for the Soldiers of an airborne logistics unit, 307th Brigade Support Battalion, deployed in Iraq’s largest and historically most volatile province, Al Anbar.
“I found that in the military, I was catering to a completely different population than I thought I would be,” said Larson, who had originally wanted to practice international medicine in areas with little access to medical care, such as Africa’s Swaziland, where she had also done a rotation.
“My guys – the guys I treat – are convoy security, and that’s not a very sexy job and not often glorified. I really enjoy taking care of them,” she said. “Even though it’s not humanitarian aid in Africa, I feel like it’s an incredibly worthy cause. I am very satisfied with it.”
As it turns out, through the advise-and-assist mission of professionalizing Iraqi Security Forces in Anbar, Larson gets to scratch the itch of caring for people who might otherwise never receive medical attention. The paratroopers of 1/82 AAB have sponsored temporary medical clinics for the poorer, more rural towns and villages up and down the western Euphrates River Valley with their Iraqi Army partners, police and local doctors, often treating hundreds of patients a day. The goal is to teach the Iraqis how to win the hearts and minds of locals by providing for their basic needs.
Some of Larson’s most memorable moments in Iraq have had nothing to do with medicine.
“When they come to my aid station, they’re sick, they’re broken, they’re asking for help,” she explained. “On the convoy, they got to flip the coin on me, and they were in charge. I got to see what it’s like to wear my body armor for 12 hours a day, and I became much more understanding of what their life is like on the road and what their job entails. I like it when my ‘Joes’ can teach me something.”
What Larson’s Soldiers do not understand is why she left her corner office and high-paying job for the Army.
“I don’t miss my former lifestyle at all,” she said. “I was miserable, and I’m not miserable now.”
She tells her younger medics that knowing what you don’t want to do is just as important as knowing what you want to do. Don’t do things for the money and don’t choose things because they are easy, she counsels them.
When Larson joined the Army, her mother was shocked and she cried. It wasn’t the airborne operations that scared her. Her daughter had been jumping out of airplanes since she was 16.
“My mom was like, what are you doing? You are going to deploy. You could get hurt,” recounted Larson. “But now my mother is the most ridiculously proud woman on the planet.”
The daily challenge of medicine is what keeps Larson enthused in her job. Unlike some occupations, there is always more to learn in medicine. The daily bread is humility.
“It’s worth it to me,” she said. “It’s an honor serving these guys who are fighting for us and out there doing the grunge work.”