Assumption PA Faculty Trade the Classroom for Emergency Rooms and ICUs

Apr. 14, 2020
Office of Communications
A view of COVID-19, coronavirus, under a microscope.

Though Assumption classes are being held remotely for the remainder of the spring semester, two physician assistant faculty members have been called to serve on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis in Worcester-area intensive care units. Nicholas Marshall, MS, PA-C, director of didactic education for Assumption’s Physician Assistant program, and Jeffery J. Giarnese, MSPA, PA-C, director of clinical education and professor of practice, are providing medical care caring for coronavirus patients in local hospitals.  

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Prof. Marshall, who previously served as a Physician Assistant (PA) within Critical Care at UMass Memorial Medical Center, is now working per diem in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). “For the current pandemic, that means that I am right in the thick of it,” he said. “Being an ICU provider I see the sickest of the sick. This virus has brought all hands on deck as hospitals are overwhelmed with patients.”

According to Prof. Marshall, each day presents different challenges as medical professionals treat those with infected with the highly contagious virus. “We are constantly evolving our tactics and care strategies for this virus,” he said, adding that his days are typically spent managing very sick and complicated patients. It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation, where staff from other units (like orthopedics, same day surgery, etc. whose appointments and procedures have all been canceled) have been redeployed to other areas to support immediate needs. “Most areas of the hospital are being converted to negative pressure areas, meaning the air pressure in that unit is lower than it is outside so air flows into the unit, but not out, to isolate this airborne virus that may be traveling in the air throughout the unit.”

Prof. Marshall calls the COVID-19 pandemic “more than serious. This is not the seasonal flu, not even on the same playing field.” For Prof. Marshall’s patients, the virus is often lethal, and it’s not just afflicting the older, frail, or chronically sick; he’s seen younger patients, with minimal medical histories, contract COVID-19 and pass away.  “This virus kills people at a rate exponentially higher than the flu.”

Though Prof. Marshall is putting himself at risk each day, he wouldn’t be anywhere else. “This is why I entered the medical field and in particular, critical care, to do what I could to help heal the sickest of the sick,” he said. “I believe that helping out, not just the patients but also my ICU colleagues is very important.”

Meanwhile, Prof. Giarnese serves both in the Neurosurgery Department for UMass Memorial and in the Emergency Room for Harrington Hospital, where he takes care of all patients, including those with possible COVID-19.  “I triage patients with symptoms of COVID-19 to determine if they should go home, be admitted or transferred to a higher level of care,” he said. “I spend a lot of time explaining to patients why they are safe to go home and why they do not need to be in the hospital.”

In January 2021, Assumption University will launch its Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies program, which will prepare graduates to compassionately serve and care for every patient, providing to them the skills needed to not only succeed in the health care field, but to treat the patient as an individual rather than the disease. Professors like Prof. Giarnese and Marshall are also practitioners, who will impart upon Assumption students the necessary skills needed to treat patients in a number of situations and circumstances, including during a global pandemic. 

Prof. Giarnese urges everyone to take coronavirus seriously. “This is a very bad disease, stay home and stay away from people as much as you can,” he said, adding that social distancing is the only way to stifle the spread. “There are no medications to treat this, no vaccine to slow the spread right now.  The spread of this disease is so quick and giving it to someone is so easy. As hard as it is to stay away from friends and family we must do this or even more people will get sick and possibly die.” 

Prof. Marshall agrees. “If you don’t need to go somewhere don’t, and if you think you do think twice,” he said. “While it sounds terrible, treat everyone as infected even if you know them. Wash your hands regularly, if you don’t remember the time you did it, do it again. This doesn’t just protect you from the virus but it also protects those around you should you get it. You may be healthy and you may not have a problem despite being infected but the people around you may not be as healthy and thus may not be as lucky.” 

“I entered the field of medicine to help people so that is what I am doing no matter what the disease states are,” said Prof. Giarnese, who is preparing to pick up extra shifts as patient loads are expected to increase over the next few weeks. “There have always been diseases that we are exposed to that are bad.  This is just on a whole new level.”