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After 26 months of grueling classwork and eight clinical rotations, 36 Rocky Mountain College physician assistant graduates received their master’s degrees and their white coats on Saturday.

The hour-long graduation, called a white coat ceremony, took place at Losekamp Hall on the RMC campus. The venue was packed with well-wishing family and friends.

The graduates of the Master of Physician Assistant Studies program listened intently as a series of faculty members imparted their thoughts and congratulations. Then the grads recited their PA oath and donned their white coats.

Afterward, the newly minted physician assistants toasted each other with champagne. They were joined at Prescott Hall for a reception by those who came to celebrate their achievement.

The students have one more requirement, to pass their Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam, before they can practice. Over the past five years, 97 percent of graduates of RMC’s physician assistant program have passed the exam.

At the start of the ceremony, Program Director Heather Heggem told the graduates that the white coat is the symbol of a journey they’re beginning. Hours of studying and late nights of reading journal reviews will continue even after they begin their careers, she said.

“But through all of this, and most importantly, you will learn how to heal, you will learn how to save lives,” Heggem said. “And when you can’t heal, you will learn the importance of a hand held and the art of compassion, the importance of hope.”

She urged them to treat each patient with respect and to often them a warm smile when the PAs walk into an exam room. Being a medical provider is a sacred gift, Heggem said.

“You’ll be caring for patients who are at the most vulnerable times of their lives,” she said. “You need to remember to be present. Lose yourself in the patient and don’t forget to walk in their shoes for a moment.”

Dr. Jeff Lakier, an associate professor with the program, told the students they were entering the profession “at the most amazing time for PAs.”

“Don’t squander the opportunity to develop and excel in whatever you choose to do,” Lakier said. “You have the foundation. Use your new-found skills well and continue to hone them. I am confident you will do well.”

After reading to the students from a Dr. Seuss book, assistant professor Dwight Harley summed up his advice simply: “Be a lifelong learner, listen to your patients and be kind.”

Carry Hall, director of clinical education for the program, oversaw the students during their second year, of clinical rotations. She received many compliments from the medical practitioners who worked with the students.

"The thing I was most proud of is when they said 'my patients love them,' 'they were great at developing a rapport with my patients' and 'they always did the best by my patients,' " Hall said. 

Class President Shaun Mickelsen drew a laugh when at the beginning of his comments, his baby daughter began to cry. He reiterated the challenges and the camaraderie he and his classmates shared over the past two years.

Mikelsen also spoke of their strong desire to help others and to make a difference in the communities they’ve served.

“You’ve inspired me with your strong work ethic, your toughness and your compassion,” Mickelsen said. “I cannot wait to see what we will accomplish in the future.”

Assistant professor Heath Hines led the students in the portion of the ceremony where they put on their white coats.

“The white coat is a symbol of dedication, sacrifice, empathy and professionalism,” Hines said. “It represents hard work, trust, compassion and commitment.”

After the ceremony, Darlene Sanders, an Air Force veteran and one of the oldest graduates at age 55, said the PA program has been unbelievable and everything she hoped for.

“I found the academic portion, having been 35 years since I’d been in school, the most challenging,” she said, a glass of champagne in her hand. “But the last year (of clinical rotations) has been a blast.”

The staff did a wonderful job of preparing the students for those rotations and their careers, said Sanders, who lives in Big Timber. She already has been offered jobs at a couple of rural clinics, and may also spend part of her time in addiction medicine.

Meagan and Gage Henderson met and married during their time as graduate students at Rocky.

“We came for PA degrees and got a marriage certificate, too,” Meagan, 24, said, smiling.

The pair met in summer 2014 before school started, and spent untold hours in the library together studying.

“We were able to help each other and support each other in the stressful times because we were both going through it," Gage, 27, said. "So that was just invaluable.” 

They got engaged in June 2015, and managed to squeeze in a wedding this summer, between their seventh and eighth clinical rotations.

Gage has been hired by Billings Clinic to work in urgent care. Meagen enjoys both internal and family medicine, and is weighing her options over which to pursue.

They have yet to go on a honeymoon.

“We’re going to jet off to Cancun the day after the (certifying) test, for our honeymoon and a well-needed break,” Gage said.

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General Assignment and Health Care Reporter

General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.