Singing the Praises of Physician Assistants

Physician assistants weren’t part of South Africa’s health care landscape when Richard Hansen was growing up there. Still, experiences in his home country started him on a path to become one.

Nearly 19 years after moving to the U.S., Hansen is on pace to graduate from the Physician Assistant Studies program at Rush University’s College of Health Sciences in December. He’s specializing in orthopedics and will take the national certification exam to become a licensed physician assistant soon after graduating.

Hansen recently talked to us about his home country, his road to becoming a physician assistant and his experience as an active member of the Rush community, including the songs he writes and sings to patients.

Tell us about your background.

Richard Hansen: I was born in South Africa and lived there until I was about 9 years old. My family moved to the U.S. when my dad got a job as an agricultural engineering professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2014, all of my family members — my mom, my dad and my sister — became U.S. citizens all on the same day.

That was shortly after I started school as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I got a degree in integrative biology. I was on a premed track but soon decided a career as a physician assistant might be a better fit.

After graduating, I started shadowing a PA who worked in hand surgery, and then I worked as a medical assistant in the same office until I started at Rush in 2016. That job really confirmed my passion for medicine and got me excited about getting into orthopedics as a PA, specifically hand surgery. 

Do you think you still would have pursued a career in health care if you had stayed in South Africa?

RH: Yeah, I was pretty young when I first decided I wanted to get into health care. I have a cousin who is a physician in South Africa. My guess is I would have followed a similar road if I had stayed there. I wouldn’t have been able to become a physician assistant because it doesn’t exist by name there — there’s an equivalent position called a clinical associate that was started there just recently. But that type of role is the absolute best position for me.

What else drove your decision to become a physician assistant?

RH: The more I learned about physician assistants and what they do, the more it seemed like a perfect fit. I would be able to see, diagnose and treat patients, and be involved in surgery depending on the specialty I chose. It was everything I wanted out of a career in medicine. There’s also the added benefit of a growing job market for physician assistants, along with good job satisfaction and the freedom to pursue different specialties.

What drew you to Rush?

RH: I researched all of the PA programs in Illinois and remember coming across Rush’s website. I hadn’t heard of Rush before. But I started talking to people in the field, and they all told me how highly regarded Rush is. Also, I would often visit Chicago as a kid and loved it, so I always wanted to live here.

During my interview for the PA program at Rush, I really liked the inclusive vibe at the school and the feel of the community. And the quality of the faculty is really what swayed me completely to want to be in this program. The combination of living in a great city and receiving a good education from great faculty made it a perfect fit.

You’re an active member of the Rush community. What types of activities are you involved in?

RH: I participate in some of Rush’s community service efforts. At the Franciscan House, a shelter on Chicago’s West Side, we conduct patient evaluations and help residents with medical complaints they have. As a student, it’s a chance to get away from purely lecture learning and work with patients. And I’ve helped out at Rush’s annual Back to School Fair, where we provide physicals, eye tests and other health care services to help local kids get ready for the school year.

In October, I’m taking a service trip to the Dominican Republic through the Global Health program at Rush. Physicians, nurses and students go there for about a week and help people who don’t have the resources or the skills to perform certain procedures.

The activity I’m most involved in is a program called Music and Healing at Rush. Every month, students, faculty and staff put on music performances at our inpatient rehabilitation clinic. I play the guitar and sing cover songs and songs I’ve written. The patients enjoy it. For 30 minutes, they have a chance to listen to some music and forget about their troubles.

Music seems to be a very important part of your life. Do you see any similarities between practicing health care and playing and writing music?

RH: Definitely, especially the technical part. You develop a level of hand-eye coordination that can be useful in medicine, especially in surgery. And there’s a way of thinking about music — working through songs and different options — that comes into play when you’re, say, strategizing and thinking through a clinical diagnosis. There seems to be quite a few clinicians who play music, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some type of correlation.

Playing music is also a great stress buster, and that can be helpful after a busy day at school or in the clinic. It gives you a chance to become completely engulfed and dissociate from the day.

Would you recommend music or other hobbies to other students working hard to complete their degree? Any other advice for students who are considering going to school to become a PA?

RH: Yes, make sure you work and study hard, but also take time to take care of yourself so you’re not getting overly stressed. Find avenues, whether it’s the guitar or exercise, to mitigate some of that stress.

I would pass on a piece of advice I received from the PA program at Rush: Trust the process of PA school. When you start, it can be a little overwhelming. In the classroom you may be thinking, “How am I supposed to be able to see and treat patients on my own two years from now?” It’s sort of an unfathomable idea at that point, when you’re still learning about anatomy and the basics. But you have to trust the process and trust that you will be well-trained by the time you are finished.

Keep flexible and ready to tackle whatever comes at you, and embrace the environment you’re in. You’re going to get through it all, and by the time you finish you’ll be ready to enter the realm of medicine.