Retired Air Force Col. Darlene Sanders was living the dream Thursday morning.
Sanders sat with 35 other students in a graduate genetics class at Rocky Mountain College. She took notes and asked questions as assistant biology professor Mark Osterlund lectured about complex concepts such as X inactivation and genomic imprinting.
Sanders and the others were in their first week of the master of physician assistant studies program on the Rocky campus. There was nowhere else she’d rather be.
“I’ve wanted to be in this chair for 28 years, and here I am,” she said while grabbing a quick lunch at the Bair Family Student Center.
More than 500 people applied for the 36 available slots in the intensive 26-month course, said program director Heather Heggem. This is the largest class of students ever enrolled in the PA program.
Earlier this year, Rocky received permission from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant to expand. Previously, the program admitted 28 students.
The diverse group of students come from around the United States, Heggem said. Though the average student is in his or her mid- to late 20s, many ages are represented.
“We get students who know they want to be a PA when they’re 18, and we also have students much older with a lot of experience that decided to become a PA,” she said. “So there’s a wide range.”
Sanders’ graying hair is a tipoff that she’s the oldest in the class.
That doesn’t bother the 53-year-old Big Timber woman, a married mother of four, three who are grown.
“I went into the Air Force at 26, which is a little over average for lieutenant and I didn’t start having kids till I was 30,” she said. “So I’ve always been a little older than my peer group.”
Though her route to PA school has been circuitous, Sanders knew early on she wanted to go into medicine. Born in Massachusetts and raised in Rhode Island, she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1982 in biology at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio.
Sanders calls herself a “doc-wanna-be” who didn’t have the grades or the maturity back then.
She went on to Boston University, where in 1984, she earned a master’s degree in applied physiology and anatomy.
“At 26 I had my midlife crisis and joined the U.S. Air Force,” Sanders said. “I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do.”
She figured she’d do a four-year stint, but that actually stretched into 27 years. She met husband, Michael, also in the Air Force, early on in her career and the two have been married nearly 26 years.
“He got out 20 years ago, when we were pregnant with our third son, and he’s been a stay-at-home dad,” she said.
The family stayed together, except when Sanders, an aircraft maintenance officer, completed two deployments in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
One of the more humorous moments in her career came when Sanders was promoted to colonel in 2008.
“Before I became a colonel, people said ‘What are you going to do when you get promoted?’ ” Sanders said, alluding to the Col. Sanders of chicken fame. “I told them I’d be grateful for the pay raise.”
Michael and the couple’s two youngest children moved to Big Timber 3 ½ years ago so he could run his family’s ranch after his father suffered a stroke.
Sanders then took on her last two deployments in Japan as a maintenance group commander, overseeing the work of 650 people. Sanders, who hadn’t given up on the idea of going into medicine, began to work toward that goal while in Japan.
She used her spare time to brush up on math, to take the graduate record exam. To get the needed direct-patient-care hours, Sanders volunteered for two years in the urgent-care clinic on base.
“The doctors and technicians were great,” she said. “They’d let me do medical histories and assist with minor procedures. It just really cemented that is what I really want to do.”
Sanders retired in November 2013 to Big Timber. She got certified as a certified nursing assistant so she could accrue the rest of the 2,000 hours of direct-patient contact she needed to apply to Rocky’s PA program.
She completed the rigorous PA application process, and was overjoyed when she got the word she’d been accepted. She’s commuting to Rocky from Big Timber.
On one of her first days in the program, Sanders said she and her fellow students got some wise advice from Heggem about how to succeed.
“As a group we’re highly competitive,” Sanders said. “And she said ‘This is a team sport and everybody has to take care of everybody, and you need everybody to be a success.’ ”
The students will spend mornings the first two weeks in two classes, genetics and bio-statistics, Heggem said. The next four weeks, they’ll focus on physiology in the morning and anatomy in the afternoon.
After that, a series of two-week teaching modules will help them learn about all aspects of medicine. Their final year, the students will complete a series of clinical rotations in Billings and elsewhere.
At the end, they take a five-hour national certifying exam. Rocky’s scores have been above the national average for the last five years, Heggem said.
Sanders hopes to eventually work with the rural underserved population.
She and her husband might also do some mission work, since both are strong Catholics.
Wherever she ends up, Sanders is glad to be where she is today.
“I have wanted to pinch everybody in the program because this is a dream come true,” she said, smiling. “I can’t believe it.”