Late Breaking News
Honored PA Seeks to Help Other Former Military Medics Enter the Profession
By Steve Lewis
HOUSTON — Russell R. Callender, chief physician assistant at the Michael E. DeBakey VAMC Center in Houston recently was awarded the 2013 Outstanding Physician Assistant Leadership Award by the Veterans Affairs Physician Assistant Association. While the honor was certainly appreciated, he says, a different kind of recognition may be even more important.
“It’s nice to get recognized by your peers and by our superb physicians,” says Callender, an Army veteran. “But what really makes my day is that one patient that comes back and says ‘Thank you. You listened to me; you examined me very well and found out what was wrong with me.’”
Callender, who has worked at the medical center nearly 28 years and practices in nuclear medicine, followed a family tradition into the military. “My father served in World War II and my older brother had also joined the military, as did almost all of my uncles and cousins,” he recounts.
When he enlisted, Callender decided to become a medic and, following his training, served as a corpsman in units in France and Germany, Korea and stateside at Fort Carson in Colorado.
“While I was in Korea in 1970, I read an article about PAs, in which they discussed a program going on at Duke Medical Center,” he recalls. “It was a very interesting profession that was tailored around medic corpsmen who were leaving the military.”
Callender was able to receive PA training while in the military, which “gave me an opportunity to provide the patients with a greater degree of services than I was already doing,” he explains.
Retiring from the Army as a chief warrant officer III in 1984, he ended up working in sleep research at the DeBakey Center.
In 1993, however, Callender heard about a position in nuclear medicine and was intrigued.
“I could not fathom what a PA would do there,” he says, “So I went down and talked to the chief. He explained they needed someone who could do the screening and monitoring for nuclear medicine cardiac stress-testing and also review consults for other nuclear medicine studies. I interviewed the same day and they offered me the position that same night.”
A Leader and Mentor
In the wake of receiving his award, Callender has been described by colleagues as a leader and mentor to his peers. “That comes from the military; the higher ranking NCOs and officers are responsible for taking care of their men and fostering the idea of career development,” he explains. “I have always been a big believer in that.”
In one situation, he recounted, a potential PA student came to him, asking about the “shadow” time required before she could apply for the training.
“I arranged for her to come here to the hospital and shadow us for a couple of weeks,” Callender shares. “I strongly encouraged her to apply for the program and gave her a letter of recommendation. She got accepted into the program, graduated two and one-half years later, and we hired her.”
The primary reason for her decision to take a position at a VA center, he asserts, was that, while shadowing professionals at DeBakey, she “saw that bond that we develop with patients and understood that unique bond between healthcare providers and veterans.”
While he expects to retire in about three years, Callender still has big plans for the future.
“What I really want to do in some minor way is return the favors and honors done to me,” he says. “I want to start trying to transition some of these medical personnel who have separated from branches of the military and help get them into the same profession.”
He says he recently talked to a medic who had been discharged from the Army after two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
“He treated and managed the injured, he had a great deal of enthusiasm and experience, but the best he could do in civilian life was to be a medical assistant — and that would not pay the bills,” says Callender. “He would have been a perfect candidate for PA school back in the ’70s, and I feel we’re squandering a wonderful resource here.”
He says he has started taking some preliminary steps, talking with universities in Texas that might be willing take these individuals and give them a “free ride” for earning the credits needed for the PA programs. “There were a couple that were willing to reserve up to five to 10 slots a year for those individuals,” he shares.
This is just the logical next step in Callender’s devotion to service. “I tell patients that they worked for us and now we’re working for them — that it’s our pleasure to serve them,” he says. “It really makes me feel good that I’m rendering care to people and I know what they’ve gone through.”