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Physician Assistant Wendy Simons
by Tom Kertes

“I know I can’t change the world,” Wendy Simons says. “But how does that Talmudic statement go? ‘If you touch one life you can make a difference in the world.’ You really can’t ask much more in life.”

Simons, as a Physician Assistant (P.A.) at New Dorp High School on Staten Island, touches many lives. “In my job you have high points every single day,” she says. “You do a lot of hugging, a lot of kissing—teenagers are like that. But, really, every time a student comes to me and says something like “I want to thank you for taking care of my girlfriend” or ‘I’m now ready to follow the diet log you told me about two years ago for my diabetes’, it’s a victory.”

“People are very scared of giving children autonomy in any form—so teenagers often tell us what they don’t tell anyone else, including their parents,” adds Simons. “What we want to do is develop better continuity and self-control in the students. And if we can have that type of close communication, that’s half the battle won.”

Simons’ program, run by Staten Island University Hospital, is the only one of its kind in the borough. It deals with 14 different areas of care for New Dorp’s 1,800 students, including birth control, health and sexuality, school counseling, smoking, vision, blood pressure screening, referral to outside agencies, and complete medical checkups. In order for the clinic to be able to treat the child, parents must give their consent for care separately in each area. “Most give a general consent—and that is a great thing because this School Health Clinic has been able to increase the number of students who finish school,” she says. “And that’s because we intimately address every issue of adolescence. Thus we’re able to deal with areas of mental or physical health that often prevent kids from graduating—and make a timely intervention.”

The Clinic has been doing its essential work for 12 years now, but with the City budget cuts no one knows how much longer it can remain in existence. “That’s the terrible reality—our funds have been cut severely over the years and the Health Care system for adolescents stinks,” says Simons. “There’s one program like this in every borough. In an ideal world, there would be a school-based health center such as this in every single school.”

Simons, who has been deeply involved with caring for others since her early childhood—“I always used to bring injured pets or people home, driving my parents crazy” she says—earned a bachelors’ degree in nursing from Cornell University. But after working for the military in Germany, at Bremerhaven Hospital, for four years, then at St. Vincent’s Hospital on Staten Island as a floor nurse, she “was frustrated. I wanted to do more.” The United States Public Health Service had a program training Physician Assistants—and not an easy one, either. “They told me, ‘you are a mother with a couple of kids, you won’t have the time, you’ll never make it’,” says Simons. “I said ‘let me worry about that.’

Physician Assistants, as opposed to nurses, are experts in a particular area of medicine, always working under the direction of a physician, whereas Nurse Practitioners are independent workers. P.A.s can prescribe drugs, give injections, and, in New York State at least, can do anything delegated to them by a doctor. Though still a somewhat obscure profession to the general public, “P. A.s have been around for about 30 years, basically developing as a separate discipline from nursing as an offshoot of the Vietnam war,” says Simons.

Simons’ program, besides taking care of the 1,800 New Dorp students, is also training college student P.A. residents who intend to enter the profession in the future. “To prepare for becoming a P.A., it has to be almost all hands-on,” she says. “There’s no such thing as distance training on the internet for this profession. It’s all about dealing with people—and at an extremely sensitive age, too.”

A P.A. in adolescent medicine can communicate on an intimate level and be profoundly involved with unique teenage problems. And, thanks to New York State law, the Physician Assistant can do the job in complete confidence as well. “We ask questions doctors often don’t even think about and we pass no moral judgment,” says Simons. The vast number of students from foreign countries, about half the population at New Dorp, present an extra challenge. “The cultural and religious differences can be enormous,” says Simons. “It’s difficult for the kids. Often it’s their first time in the U.S. and things that were taboo before are now right out in the open. But then they have to go home, to another world, if you will. So we must be able to listen to their conflict and try to mediate it.

“A couple of months ago a new student from Liberia, came to see us,” says Simons. “Her birth certificate said she was 16 years old. She looked 40. We examined her and talked to her about things that needed to be talked about. Then I saw her again last week and she looked fresh, happy and wonderful—like a real sixteen-year old.

“It’s small victories like this that I experience every day. It’s small victories that make it all worthwhile.”#




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