Where Exceptional Begins

From Ohio to Yellowstone: Nick Hendershot’s PA Wilderness Rotation

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By Nick Hendershot ’15, M ’17 

Yellowstone National Park, America’s first national park and one of the largest parks in the world, attracts more than 4 million visitors from all over the country to enjoy its wonders. While many experienced hikers travel to Yellowstone, there are some that are not as skilled. Fortunately for those travelers, Nick Hendershot, who will graduate from Mount Union’s Physician’s Assistant Studies Program this August, completed his last clinical rotation at Yellowstone, working to help sick and injured visitors while working towards his master’s degree.

Hands-On Experience in the Wilderness

“I went to Yellowstone National Park as my final PA school clinical rotation. I was there for the entire month of June. Living in Ohio my entire life and having minimal travel experience, it was an eye-opening opportunity. Not only was the scenery extraordinary and the hikes sheer beauty, but it was a challenge to practice medicine in such a remote part of America. I lived in the old in-patient unit of the hospital at Yellowstone Lake, which was once used as a wildfire fighting base camp. I also worked in a clinic at Old Faithful, which was about an hour and a half drive from Yellowstone Lake. We treated patients as an emergency department and urgent care, seeing everything from sore throats and sinus infections to hypothermia and acute mountain sickness. Many visitors come to Yellowstone Park unprepared for the rugged mountainous conditions or the scarcity of the basic amenities that we are accustomed to. The weather changes unpredictably at times, from marble-sized hail to clear blue skies within hours.”

“Each clinic was manned by one student, two nurses and a certified PA. We all worked together to care for critical patients, organize transport for more complex cases, handle patient intake, and keep the clinic flowing. As a small medical team, we were responsible for taking our own x-rays and using centrifuges to spin down and read our own lab results. Being in such a remote location, we had minimal resources available to us, so we often utilized helicopter flight crews to transport patients to larger hospital facilities. Cody, Wyoming was the nearest city (90 miles away through winding mountain roads), yet was very small and rural. The closest advanced care hospital was a 4-5 hour car ride. This made it very important to use the medical skills developed during previous rotations to thoroughly evaluate patients to determine if they could stay at Yellowstone, go to more advanced facilities by their own mode of transportation, or required immediate transport by an ambulance or helicopter. To provide the best care to our patients, we worked very closely with the law enforcement rangers, paramedic rangers, and even the wildlife management rangers throughout the park. “

Finding Unusual Opportunities

“I was doing research at the beginning of PA school about all the wonderful opportunities available to PAs. I found positions ranging from National Geographic film crews who utilize PAs on their expeditions, to CIA job opportunities in remote areas. I came across Yellowstone National Park and learned it accepted students, thus peaking my interest.”

Beneficial Skills for a Rewarding Career 

“I gained a deeper understanding of medicine by learning to take x-rays and utilizing laboratory techniques normally designated to lab personnel in hospitals. Although my job after graduation at Mercy Medical Center Emergency Department won’t require me to do any of that, it deepened my knowledge of what goes on behind the scenes at large, well-staffed medical facilities. It also fine-tuned my clinical skills to quickly evaluate each patient and assess their acuity to then determine what sort of outcomes they may have. This was vital, as at times it took more than an hour to organize helicopter flights out of the park to transport patients to better equipped medical centers. I learned to think outside of the box and utilize the minimal resources we had available to better treat and assess each patient.”

Lasting Memories and Experience 

“Although hiking and exploring the park was a breathtaking experience, my favorite part of this rotation was living in and providing medical care in an area with minimal access to basic amenities such as internet, grocery stores, and pharmacy services. I got to meet and learn from Dr. Luanne Freer who is the medical director in the park. She is one of the leading experts on remote and wilderness medicine and was vital in the development of the Everest Base-camp medical services. Enjoying the back-country beauty of America while also challenging my medical knowledge and skills, this clinical rotation reassured me of my competence to practice as a PA following my certification exam this August.”

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