Although over 1,200 students have graduated from the Yale Physician Associate (PA) Program since 1973, until recently, no class had held a formal reunion on the Yale campus. The classes of 1988 and 1998 changed this trend, when both decided, coincidentally, to gather on campus in August.
The positive feedback from both reunions suggests these will not be one-time events. Nine of 17 living members of the Class of ’88 came together to celebrate their 30th reunion, while 16 of 32 members of the Class of ’98 returned to campus for a 20th reunion. Adding in spouses and children, the Class of ’98 had 29 attendees, including classmates coming from as far away as Wisconsin, Georgia, Florida, and Washington state.
David Kotler ’88 PA-C, co-organizer for the Class of ’88 said “I was so looking forward to this day, and it’s even better in person.” Jonathan Weber ’98 PA-C, one of the Class of ’98 organizers, describes the reunion “as a positive inflection point.” The gathering reminded him, and he believes his classmates, of why they entered the PA profession and about the importance of relationships among friends, colleagues, and patients. He said “the buoyancy the reunion created moved me in a way I never anticipated.”
Traditionally, Yale PA alumni have held gatherings, off-campus, in conjunction with professional conferences and meetings. The idea to hold campus-based reunions developed organically for both classes. Weber and his classmate and neighbor Ken Watkins ’98 PA-C, thought about organizing a reunion when they realized that more than a third of their classmates lived in Connecticut. They recruited another nearby alumna, Anita Dunn ‘98 PA-C, and got to work tracking down classmates and crafting a schedule of events.
Similarly, over the past three years, some Connecticut- and New York-based members of the Class of ’88 have been meeting every few months for dinner in New Haven. They viewed a 30th reunion as a special opportunity to locate and connect with the rest of their class. Kotler and co-organizer Carol Amico ’88 PA-C, AAHIVS, eventually were able to make contact with each of their classmates. They planned a full day of on-campus activities, capped in the evening with a murder mystery dinner theater event, which coincidentally had the theme of a class reunion, at a local restaurant.
PA leadership, faculty, and staff were excited to welcome these classes back to campus. The reunions serendipitously coincided with the first week of school for the 40 students in the PA Class of 2020. The PA Program leveraged this opportunity and arranged a Class of ’88 panel discussion and reception with the new students. PA Program Director Alexandria Garino, PhD, PA-C, introduced the discussion by stating “we thought it would be really nice to bring some of our seasoned family to meet our new family.”
Family was an apt word, because both classes discussed their strong bonds. During the Class of ’88 panel, Terry Crumb ’88 PA-C, described classmates as being “like brothers and sisters,” noting “the first thing we learned to do was to draw blood on each other.” The Class of ’98 reunion included an event where everyone shared three photos. Weber said most of the photos depicted special times the students had spent together, such as at holiday-themed parties, which were important antidotes to the pressures of school.
In their session with students, the Class of ’88 reminisced about going to the library and using the card catalogue, carrying heavy books to class (versus the students using eBooks today), and taking notes with a paper and pen. Weber reports that having William Stewart, PhD, associate professor of surgery and chief, section of anatomy, take the class to the Anlyan Center, where they saw cutting-edge technology, with each anatomy table having its own drop-down ventilation system and computer screen over it, was impressive. Weber noted that students today do not experience, as his class did, “paper handbooks and textbooks which over time were soaked in formaldehyde from the poorly ventilated air in the anatomy room.” Crumb similarly was “amazed by the Simulation Center tour and the technology.”
Beyond the technological changes, since the Class of ’88 and ’98 graduated, the PA profession has expanded and become integrated into almost every medical field. The Class of ’88 told current students that unlike when they entered the profession, current students will not have to explain what a PA is. Shari LeFauve ’88 PA-C, added, “we had to prove ourselves. We were usually the first PAs any organization had hired.” However, LeFauve expressed the excitement that came with the novelty: “what a wonderful time it was to become a PA, at the birth of the profession, and it is wonderful to see how it has grown.”
While the PA profession had grown somewhat by 1998, several Class of ’98 members discussed how not only have they developed professionally since they graduated 20 years ago, but that the PA profession has developed, and now it is embedded in the fabric of health care. Weber believes that with medicine “evolving towards more patient-centered care, a collaborative, team approach is the most successful model, and PAs fit right into that model.”
Weber cites his own career as an example of this. When he graduated from the PA Program, he was interested in becoming a hospitalist. At the time, Yale New Haven Hospital (YNHH) was not yet ready to start such a hospitalist service involving PAs. It launched one just a few months later, and when Weber joined YNHH in this role a year later, he was one of four PAs and two doctors on the team. Today, the YNHH hospitalist service has grown to 80 advance practice providers, including PAs, nurse practitioners, and certified nurse midwives, and 80 physicians, covering hospitalized patients 24/7.
Despite all the technological changes and the growth of the PA profession, Amico told the new students “we had a lot more in common with you than is different. We didn’t feel like pioneers, we felt like the PA profession was established thanks to those who came before us. We were both scared and excited to be starting school, like you are, and we appreciated those who helped us get to this point. And we became grateful to all those who became our teachers - faculty, classmates, medical professionals, patients, and their families.”
Another common theme of both reunion classes: a satisfying career. Weber said “everyone shared how happy they were with their decision to attend PA School.” He also noted how one classmate used two words to describe their experience at PA school: “serendipity and transformative: it was serendipitous that each member of the class joined it from a different part of the country and, largely in one room in the Hope Building, their lives were transformed.” Gretchen Zachel ’88 PA-C, described how “it’s a privilege to help people,” while Judy Nunes ’88 PA-C, FACHE, noted how the profession has “amazingly transferable skills,” which was evidenced by several members of the class having served in a variety of settings and specialties since graduating.
The Class of ’88 shared lessons learned during the program with the new PA students. Amico mentioned “the value of collaboration with other PAs, physicians, nurses, social workers, chaplains, and other medical professionals,” a skill that now is built into the PA curriculum early on, through the Interprofessional Longitudinal Clinical Experience. Mark Farrell ’88 PA-C, told how when he began the program, he was “laser-focused to learn every single thing, and ran out of gas by October.” And then he realized that the profession is a “life-long endeavor and that you can’t learn it all during the program.” He noted that with technology making everything 24/7, current students should be especially cautious of burning out. Mark Powers ’88 PA-C, added, “let the experience shape itself, because you will end up liking specialties you did not expect to like.”
Nunes, pointing to the strength of the Yale PA Program and the respect and importance of the PA profession today, told the new students “literally the world is at your feet.”
Alumni from both classes are in conversation with the PA Program leadership to make gifts in honor of their reunions to support the education of the current PA students.
The year 2021 will be the 50th anniversary of the first class entering the PA Program at Yale. Garino suggested a 50th Anniversary PA celebration would be a tremendous opportunity to bring a large contingent of PA alumni back to campus. Weber hopes this happens, because then his class would not have to wait until their 25th reunion in 2023 to reunite at Yale again.