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PA program prepared Rickher for pandemic’s uncertainty
by Chuck Gordon

Allison Rickher ’14, ’16 (PAS) was about as prepared for the coronavirus pandemic as a 28-year-old on the frontlines could be.

As a student in Wingate’s Physician Assistant Studies program, Rickher accompanied Dr. Roy Blank, then the program’s medical director, on a medical mission to Nicaragua, during the Zika-virus outbreak. The trip provided training that Rickher leaned on this year as she tested patients for Covid-19 at a Novant drive-up facility in Matthews.

“That was an incredible, incredible trip,” Rickher says of her weeklong stay in Central America. “I did things on that trip that I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do in the States, because it was just true medicine. I mean, just like me and the patient and we’re trying to figure out what to do to make you better.”

Allison Rickher taking someone's temperature

Rickher had her hands full this year. She is a physician assistant at First Charlotte Physicians in Matthews. But after the coronavirus outbreak became a pandemic and really started taking hold in the United States, Novant opened a makeshift clinic in a strip mall in Matthews and asked for volunteers.

Rickher mulled it over, and when Novant asked a second time, Rickher raised her hand.

“I don’t have children. I’m thankfully very healthy. I’m young,” she says. “I felt that I could go and work at a place like this and not have a huge impact on other people. I don’t have to go home to young children. I don’t have any health conditions that put me at increased risk. So I thought, Why don’t I go, as opposed to having someone forced to go who has health risks and concerns?”

Rickher and the doctors, nurses and other PAs at the clinic worked banking-hours shifts every day, testing patients in their cars and bringing the sicker ones inside for more-extensive examinations if necessary.

Rickher says that initially, when the clinic offered only drive-up service, she and her colleagues tested about 200 people per day.

The work was arduous. Rickher says she saw seven to 10 patients a day. The car-side exams took about 10 minutes and included a swab plus a check of vital signs. She had patients wait for their results, which were back in 20 to 30 minutes. If someone was having trouble breathing, she might recommend they come in for an X-ray. Rickher encountered plenty of Covid-19-positive patients, and a few of them were taken to the hospital by ambulance.

Through it all, she was covered head to toe, with her face getting three layers of covering. Wearing two masks plus a face shield made it hard to breathe and to communicate, and every layer increased her body temperature. Luckily, the spring wasn’t overly hot, but even so, Rickher says, “you just sweated the whole day.”

“I think all of us would say we were absolutely exhausted at the end of the day,” she says. “I definitely fell asleep on the couch at like 8:30.”

Rickher came to Wingate on a volleyball scholarship, and she was an outstanding student. One selling point for Wingate was the PA Advantage program, which gives preferential treatment to Wingate undergrads, provided they meet and maintain certain criteria. Rickher, who finished No. 4 in her class at Weddington High, stayed on at Wingate for grad school.

“Wingate’s PA program, I can’t say enough about it,” she says. “I mean, they’re phenomenal. I take students now from the Wingate PA program, I precept them, and they’re better than any students I’ve ever encountered.”

I think an appropriate amount of fear is good, because that means that you’re going to be on your toes. Being overconfident can be detrimental.

The program gave her the opportunity to do real, in-person, dire-need medicine in one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. For several years, Blank served as the medical director of Bless Black Worldwide, a mission organization with operations in Haiti and Nicaragua, and he would regularly enlist students to help out.

For Rickher, it provided invaluable hands-on experience.

“It is unlike any other opportunity, because when you’re down there, you’re basically functioning as your own provider,” she says. “When you’re in school, in the States, you are talking to patients, you’re examining patients, but ultimately there’s somebody else there that’s going to make the final decision. You can try to impact it, but they’re the ones that are making the final decision.

“When I was in Nicaragua, it was me. I mean, Dr. Blank was there, there were other physicians, other PAs. But at the end of the day, if I was going to make a decision about something, that’s what was going to happen.”

The experience taught Rickher one particularly important lesson that she used this year, during an unprecedented global crisis: fear of the unknown can be a good thing.

“I think an appropriate amount of fear is good, because that means that you’re going to be on your toes,” Rickher says. “You’re not going to let certain things slip through the cracks. You know, being overconfident I think can be detrimental.”