Work in Rural Alaska Launched PA Career


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Alaska’s Aleutian Islands aren’t an easy place to live.

Some 2,000 people inhabit the string of 71 islands, which extends west from the Alaska mainland into the Bering Sea.

It’s a remote life in a hostile climate — and it’s a large part of the reason Mary Von, interim director of the Pacific University School of Physician Assistant Studies, became a physician assistant.

An Oregon native whose early ancestors settled in the Reedville area in 1846, Von moved to Alaska with her parents as a high school senior, graduating in 1980. Then, she moved to Dutch Harbor, the main port in the Aleutian Island chain. She worked on crab lines, picking shells from the conveyer belts in a cannery.

At the time, it cost about $1,000 to fly from the islands to mainland Alaska. There was a cheaper way, though, she was told. “If you want to get off the island for free, you can volunteer for this terrific ambulance service,” she heard.

So began her emergency medical technician training.

“It really wasn’t altruistic,” she said with a laugh.

“I did a lot of heavy trauma work, with commercial fishermen, community members and cannery workers,” she said.

“There was extensive trauma from heavy machinery on board ships of all sizes; a lot of fillet injuries when the worker accidentally put their hand in the fillet machine and cut all their fingers off — that was always bad,” she said.

“There were serious injuries from falls or heavy crab pots on fishing vessels, tons of head trauma.”

Foreign fishing vessels presented significant challenges, she said.

“You are on the rolling sea, jumping from the tugboat to grab the rope ladder hanging down the side of the ship in the dark, and the crew usually didn’t speak English very well,” she said.

“It was exhilarating and difficult.”

Then, there was the challenge of keeping patients stable when they couldn’t make the four-hour flight to an Anchorage hospital.

“There was seriously brutal weather where sometimes planes couldn’t take off for days, and we were trying to keep people stable in a trauma bay at a small community clinic,” she said.

Von received an award for her work as an EMT III from the City of Unalaska and the Emergency Services Corp, which helped pay for her to go to physician assistant training at the University of Washington’s MEDEX Northwest program.

She earned a certificate of completion, took national boards and became a physician assistant in 1995 (when PA training didn’t require a bachelor’s degree).

She worked as a PA in Alaska and in Oregon, then continued her education.

She earned a master of science in advanced physician assistant studies from the Arizona School of Health Sciences in 2001 and a doctorate in health education from the A.T. Still University School of Health Management in Missouri in 2010. In 2008, the American Academy of Physician Assistants named her a Distinguished Fellow.

She also holds specialty certification in migraine and headache management and lifestyle counseling.

Von joined the School of Physician Assistant Studies in 2003, serving first as a clinical coordinator, then as director of academic education.

She has been associate director of the school since 2012 and is now serving as interim director until a successor to the departing director, Judy Ortiz, is hired.