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This Doctor Can: Finding my place as a physician associate

Jennylee always knew she wanted to work in healthcare, but was discouraged by a schoolteacher from pursuing a medical career. It was only once she’d finished her studies and came across a job advert for a physician associate role that the career path she’d always hoped for finally slotted into place. 

Growing up in Northern Ireland, I was fascinated with the human body; my favourite book was an encyclopaedia that had a plastic acetate sheet with an outline of a body that you placed over the various images of the body stripped back under the skin. I knew the names of most of the bones in the body by the age of 7, and surprised a doctor by referring to carpals and metacarpals during a consultation.

I always knew I wanted to work in a healthcare environment. I loved visiting relatives in hospital and having the chance to watch everything going on around me. However, my path was never going to be easy. I grew up in a single-parent home on a council estate and had responsibilities towards my siblings and in the home, which meant that schoolwork was lower down the priority list. My home environment was fraught with tension and emotional instability, and was very stressful. At GCSE stage, my chemistry teacher discouraged me from ever applying for medicine or anything scientific as he told me I wasn’t suited to that career. This led to me dropping chemistry and physics completely.

I still achieved good grades at A level and went to university to study clinical physiology, specialising in cardiology. During my time at university I got married, which provided me with the stability I needed to settle down properly and concentrate on exams. I enjoyed my studies, but really felt that the role of a cardiac physiologist just wasn’t for me. It didn’t provide me with the patient contact and continuity that I desired.

When I graduated I chose to start a family, thinking that I would be able to concentrate on a career better once my children were at school. Over the next 10 years I had three children and worked around them in various professions, from childcare provider to community care assistant to classroom assistant and even working for the government. I still had this burning desire to work in healthcare and I needed something to challenge me mentally, and therefore during those 10 years I also committed to studying a PgCert in imaging in medicine and a level 3 qualification in supporting teaching and learning.

I always knew I wanted to work in a healthcare environment.

Jennylee Aiken, physician associate

One day, while looking for jobs online, I came across an advert for a physician associate (PA) in a hospital only 10 miles from me and thought ‘wow, I would love this!’. I pointed it out to my husband, who agreed that the job sounded exactly like what I’d always wanted to do and that we should investigate how I could get into it. It was then that we discovered that the only universities offering the course were in England. With three children under 10 at the time, it just didn’t seem possible.

I found a course in Sheffield that offered a grant and free tuition fees, and so my husband encouraged me to apply, telling me that at least, if I applied, there would be no ‘what ifs’. The application led to an interview and subsequently an offer of a place. I initially told myself that it was enough for me to know I was capable of getting a place, but that I wouldn’t accept it. But my husband was incredibly encouraging and insisted we’d somehow get by!

Liverpool University was seeking a pilot group of students with a different funding package, and it was easier to get to from Belfast, so I applied and passed their assessment (multiple mini interviews) before being offered a place on the course. I spent 2 years living in Liverpool from Monday to Friday, travelling home every weekend to see my family. It was hard going, but we managed it. At the end of my time in Liverpool, I was offered a job in Blackpool, but I really did not want to spend any more time away from my family and was determined to get home.

I began emailing directors of hospital trusts and practice managers in GP practices in Northern Ireland, explaining what a PA was and how we worked, and asking them if they felt it was something, they might be interested in. There were no jobs advertised for PAs in Northern Ireland at the time, but Ulster University had just started offering a course, which meant there was definitely interest!

A year later, after focusing on GP practices a few of them eventually decided to give me a ‘trial run’, letting me spend a day in their practice to see how I got on. From this trial, I was lucky to achieve three job offers and then I had to decide which practice to pick! They were all very far from my home, but in my mind at least I could live at home and be with my husband and children again. I spent a year working in a GP practice in a rural setting over 35 miles from home, until the opportunity came to work in the hospital only 10 miles from home. I applied for the job.

I now work in a regional trauma and orthopaedics unit, working with the orthomedicine team, and have been for over a year. I love the busy, constantly changing environment and becoming a PA most definitely fulfilled my desire for a challenge!

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