Veteran physician assistant glad she disregarded mom

By Kristen Holland Shear

Linda Contreras vividly recalls the time she called her mother to say she was leaning toward becoming a physician assistant.

“My mom was saying, ‘Don’t do it! Go to med school, go to dental school, go to RN school,’” Ms. Contreras said. “‘Do anything but go to PA school. You won’t have a job when you get out.’”

  Linda Contreras

Nearly 30 years later, Ms. Contreras is glad she stuck to her guns and entered the profession. A 1985 graduate of the newly renamed UT South­western School of Health Professions, Ms. Contreras was recently elected director at large of the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA), the only national organization that represents physician assistants in all specialties. 

The San Antonio native previously chaired the national association’s Constituent Relations Committee and was an alternate delegate to the AAPA House of Delegates from Texas. She also served as president of the Texas Academy of Physician Assistants from 2004 to 2005.

Her new position requires lots of travel, meetings and phone conferences, but Ms. Contreras said she’s excited about the opportunity to help shape the profession’s future.

“When I was on the Texas board, one of the things that I found appealing in being involved in leadership is that you play an integral part in changing your profession,” said Ms. Contreras, who works in the division of hematology and oncology at Parkland Memorial Hospital and is also an adjunct faculty member at UT Southwestern. “You actually can see changes being made.”

Though the phrase “physician assistant” wasn’t in Ms. Contreras' vocabulary when she entered Baylor University as a pre-med major, she said the job is a perfect fit.

“The main thing I’ve always liked about the profession is it gives me the chance to have a very autonomous relationship with my patients,” said Ms. Contreras, who also holds a master’s in physician assistant studies from the University of Nebraska College of Medicine. “I have the supervision when I need it, but I can make many decisions on my own.”

Under a physician’s supervision, physician assistants can conduct physical exams, diagnose and treat illness, order and interpret tests, counsel on preventive health care, assist in surgery and write prescriptions. They can also practice in any medical or surgical setting.

Ms. Contreras, who was accepted to all three PA programs that existed in the state in the early ’80s, said she chose UT Southwestern because it had such a professional aura.

“We had a dress code, so you almost thought you were coming to a job and not a class,” she said. “Everything was geared toward being a professional. I thought that was a good ethic to instill.”

Ms. Contreras hasn’t strayed far from UT Southwestern since graduation. She has worked at Parkland for 20 of her 23 years as a physician assistant.

She’ll celebrate her 20th anniversary in November, but she’s a relative newcomer to the hematology/on­cology division, having left ambulatory care only three years ago.

Ms. Contreras said she made the switch because she was ready for a new challenge. Now, she said, she learns something every day.

“It has stretched me so much in my ability to use what I learned in internal medicine and apply it to a specialty,” Ms. Contreras said. “On the patient-centered side, I truly relish the relationships that you’re able to have with your patients on an ongoing basis.

“My patients become very attached to me, and I become very attached to them. ”