In just three years since graduating from DMU, Brooke Schweitzer, PA-C’12, has journeyed from “the middle of nowhere” in Kansas to America’s fourth-largest city, from providing emergency room and family medicine care and coverage of two local nursing homes to now performing intricate reconstructive surgery on cancer patients. In those three short years, she’s opened some minds on the roles and abilities physician assistants bring to health care teams.
Initially drawn to emergency medicine and trauma care, Schweitzer launched her career at Rush County Memorial Hospital in LaCrosse, KS, “three and half hours away” from the nearest Starbucks and Target. She provided emergency medical care and saw patients at the family medicine clinic of the local critical access hospital as well as at two nursing homes. With a fellow physician assistant and physician, she also dabbled in administrative issues, such as whether the organization could hire another provider or purchase another laboratory machine.
“At DMU, we had to complete a project on how to run a clinic. I thought I’d probably never use that,” she says. “Then there I was, using that little slice of knowledge in my job.”
Schweitzer applied her interest in surgery and the surgical training she gained at DMU and in Kansas to land a position at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, one of the nation’s three comprehensive cancer centers designated by the National Cancer Act of 1971 that draws patients from across the country and around the world. In her role in its Center for Reconstructive Surgery, she and her colleagues work with MD Anderson’s other specialties to perform surgeries that include such procedures as forming new tongues for tobacco users, using tissues from their bodies, and restoring the ability to speak for patients whose larynges have been devastated by cancer. While their cases are complex, each requiring up to 10 hours of surgery, the surgical team members are in it together.
“Our service runs so smoothly because of the specific roles for everybody. The physicians do the dissections; the PAs do all the sewing and repair of the tissue donor sites. It works so well as a team and for the benefit of the patient,” she says.
Schweitzer’s attending physician, Peirong Yu, M.D., FACS, was on the team that on May 22 performed the first-ever scalp and skull transplant simultaneously with solid organ transplants. She joined him on a recent trip to China for a conference on breast reconstruction and his presentations on breast, head and neck reconstruction. It was another opportunity to explain the role that PAs can play in health care.
“A lot of our fellows at MD Anderson are international, and some have never heard of PAs,” she says. “I feel really lucky to work with colleagues, in Kansas and here, who appreciate PAs for how we can help in clinic and make surgeries go faster and better.”
Schweitzer also enjoys practicing in a setting where she can interact with patients pre-and post-surgery — patients whose lives she helps enhance.
“It’s great to see patients who have these terrible cancers that we can do reconstruction on to help them eat or talk,” she says.