Katie Morris was a nurse practitioner student in a jam. One month before she was to begin her first clinical rotation, her preceptor was terminated, pitching her into a panic-stricken search for other options.
“I started making calls and asking friends for favors, but finding a preceptor is difficult enough without the complication of one month over my head,” she recalls.
Enter Robert Birk, PA-C’02, a physician assistant with Community Memorial Hospital Oconto Medical Center in Oconto, WI. He took Morris on rotation and also demonstrated to her true patient care.
“I cannot say enough how much he cares about his patients…his patients know he cares,” Morris says. “It was not uncommon to see whole families during visits and then, in an afternoon visit, see extended family because word has spread that they found a trusted practitioner in the community.”
Morris’ comments were part of her nomination of Birk for the Wisconsin Academy of Physician Assistants (WAPA) 2012 Physician Assistant of the Year, an honor he accepted in October. He was selected for his excellence in patient care through relationships with his patients and colleagues, as well as for his service both in and outside of the medical community.
“Rob was just one of those guys that I knew would do great things in our profession.”
–Pam Chambers, M.P.H.’01, PA-C’92
“He really goes the extra mile,” says Morris, M.S.N., FNP-C.
Birk understands what it’s like being in a jam. He and his sister were raised by their older brother after cancer took their parents’ lives, before Birk was a teenager. As a medic with the U.S. Air Force, he worked his first duty assignment at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, NE, under James Tracy, D.O., who, Birk says, “more than once told me that I was more than just a medic.” Later sent to Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks, AK, he was mentored by Captain Jesse Ewing, PA-C, who involved him in clinical cases.
“I told PA Ewing that eventually I wanted to return to my hometown community and provide the much-needed medical care there,” Birk recalls. “I spoke about going to medical school. He said, ‘Why not be a PA? You can still be that small-town guy…most of your patients will still call you their doctor.’”
That put Birk on a PA path. He soldiered through his academic prerequisites between active duty and deployments to Saudi Arabia and Cuba. Once he was accepted into DMU’s PA program, his hospital commander agreed to release him from active military duty requirements 18 months early. Another jam: The base commander denied his release.
“I was devastated, to say the least,” Birk recalls. “My career goal hung right in front of me, just out of reach.”
Enter Pam Chambers, M.P.H.’01, PA-C’92, associate professor in DMU’s PA program, and Jodi Cahalan, Ph.D., M.P.H.’01, M.S.’93, PA-C’89, then program director and now dean of the College of Health Sciences. They gave Birk a deferral so he could begin the program the following year.
“I was beyond relieved and more thankful than ever,” he says. The next year, he was honorably discharged from the Air Force and began the PA program six days later.
“Rob was just one of those guys that I knew would do great things in our profession, as soon as I met him,” Chambers says.
Birk says he’s doing exactly what he wants – being that “small-town guy” in the county where he grew up, taking care of people he knew as a youngster, friends and now their children.
“I couldn’t be happier,” he says. “I thank DMU’s PA program for giving me the knowledge and tools I need to be a great primary care provider.”
Alumni can get involved in DMU’s PA program by serving as preceptors, signing up on the online alumni mentor map or lecturing on campus. To learn more, contact Jolene Kelly at 515-271-1685 or visit www.dmu.edu/alumni/volunteer/.