PA students stick the compassion competency

Early this year Heather Opseth, M.P.A.S., PA-C, assistant professor and assistant director of DMU’s physician assistant (PA) program, was scheduled to give a lecture on pediatric dermatologic conditions. Instead, she and her husband were at a local children’s hospital with their two-year-old son, Huxley, who had developed respiratory distress and pneumonia secondary to influenza. Fortunately, he was discharged after three days of treatments and TLC.

Huxley Opseth was delighted by his recent gift from PA students.

When Opseth returned to campus the following week to finally deliver the pediatric dermatologic lecture, she found a surprise: On the lecture hall podium was a gift box with hundreds of stickers and other favorite items for Huxley with a card signed by the PA students.

“As a parent, PA and faculty member, I was honored the students would think of my son and my family during this frighten- ing time,” she says. “Having to lecture for the next two hours, I knew I needed to keep myself together!”

A core competency of the PA profession is to “demonstrate compassionate and respectful behaviors when interacting with patients and their families.”

While instructing and assessing students’ competency on skills like compassion and empathy can be challenging, Opseth strives to do so by drawing from her experiences working as a primary care PA as well as “stories of being a human being, mother, wife, sister and daughter.”

“In our small ‘family-like’ cohorts of 50 students, I can get to know students on a personal level and share tidbits from my life,” she says. “For example, at the end of my lectures, I will often show a photograph of my children. Students have commented on how they appreciate the lighthearted break from the rigors of the content provided and enjoy a glance into my life outside of being a faculty member.”

That made the students’ gift to Huxley especially meaningful. Earlier, Opseth had shared a story about stickers, which she had come to dislike after a recent event.

“My son was at the doctor’s office for a visit and was given stickers for his exceptional behavior. On the way home, I glanced in the mirror to see him ‘decorating’ the car window with stickers!” she says. “As most mothers can relate, I have annoyingly found my fair share of stickers around the house.”

As she drove home after that pediatric lecture, stickers in tow, she was confident the students understand the core competency, “demonstrate compassionate and respectful behaviors” – but not just because they answered quiz questions correctly.

“More importantly, the students knew how to demonstrate and live out this competency. My son was thrilled with his new hoard of stickers,” she says. “In a written thank-you to the students, I expressed, ‘Continue to demonstrate this compassion for those around you. Consequently, you will do great things!’ I cannot wait to see what great things these future PAs will do for the world around us.”

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