Health care extender
Don Massie has long been good medicine for Corning
Don Massie returned from the Vietnam War and found himself at a crossroads. He still wanted to put his skills as an Air Force medic to use, but couldn’t find a job matching his abilities in the civilian sector.
Then he discovered a relatively new position he could wrap his head and hands around: physician assistant (or PA). After two years of training and certification, he could work with a doctor and treat patients almost as if he had a medical degree, but without having to put in the additional years of schooling.
Massie became one of 16 students accepted into the inaugural PA class at Stanford University in 1971. He graduated in 1973, then immediately came to Corning, where he was recruited by Dr. Gerald Ingle to take some of the primary-care load from the general practitioner and surgeon.
A Southern California native, Massie intended to work in this rural community just a few years, pay off his student loan, then move along.
“Here I am still,” he said with a gentle chuckle.
Massie and his wife, Connie, a social worker and clinic administrator, both work at Corning Health Center. From 1986 to 2014, they owned the practice and operated out of a building owned by the Corning Health Care District. Now it’s under the umbrella of Feather River Hospital and Adventist Health, which retained the whole staff—including the Massies.
“Don and Connie ran a great operation,” said Keith Stilson, who oversees outpatient clinics as vice president of ancillary services at Feather River Hospital.
The couple live in Corning, by the Sacramento River, 5 miles from the clinic. Now 68, Don Massie is a fixture in town. He basically kept health care alive after Corning Memorial Hospital went bankrupt in 1986.
That was another crossroads, where he could have taken a different path; instead, he assumed control of the clinic, hired doctors—ironically, becoming the boss of his supervising physicians—and extended his care for the community into a third generation of neighbors.
“The closing of the hospital was quite an economic and social thing,” said Mayor Gary Strack, a Corning city councilman since 1971. “Don, by being able to understand what was needed and work with the health board, was able to keep health providers for us.
“The alternative was Chico or Red Bluff until we could have found somebody else to come in, and that would have taken a while with the district finances the way they were … Don did a really great service to the Corning community by doing what he did to get the clinic going, keeping it going and seeing that it continued.”
Since Massie has been blazing trails for nearly 45 years, it’s no surprise that he’s been recognized as a pioneer in his profession.
The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants is honoring the 224 PAs nationwide who have maintained their certification throughout the organization’s 40 years. Considering the commission has 102,000 active members, Massie is in rare company. He’s receiving a certificate as well as publicity from his peer group for the achievement.
The profession has changed somewhat over the decades, but more in perception than practice.
“It was a challenge being a PA back in the early years because nobody knew what you were,” Massie said. “It was kind of tough educating patients. Now it’s pretty routine; mid-levels are common over the entire United States.”
Indeed, since his arrival, other parts of the North State caught up with Corning in terms of welcoming mid-level providers: PAs and NPs (nurse practitioners).
Stilson calls them “physician extenders” for the role they now play in local clinics, practices and hospitals. They can perform most any function of a licensed medical doctor. Feather River Hospital employs 30 mid-levels in Paradise alone.
“In times past, there were hardly any of them,” said Stilson, who’s worked for Adventist Health since 1971. “They are a vital necessity now because of the extreme shortage of primary-care physicians.”
In bringing Massie and his practice into the fold, Feather River Hospital didn’t so much expand as add. Adventist Health is the largest operator of rural health clinics in California, Stilson said, including FRH’s three in Paradise. Corning Health Center fits within a broader network.
“It’s our mission to minister to the medically underserved and those in need,” Stilson said. “So when the opportunity in Corning came up, we jumped at the chance to reach out to another community that really had no medical infrastructure.”
That opportunity came when Massie began succession planning. Though not intending to retire soon, he knows he can’t practice forever. He said he wanted to ensure continuity of care; now that will happen—with or without him.
Stilson said Massie “is welcome to stay as long as he wants, and he can be guaranteed that Feather River Hospital and Adventist Health will carry on the tradition of great health care in Corning.”
Massie, reflecting on the career that forged this tradition, wrote thoughts to share:
“After 43 years of practice, I’ve realized that all people are basically good and individually unique, and that all want good health but realize it’s just hard to live by all the ‘health rules.’
“Moderation is the key. A little exercise goes a long way. Good health is a blessing, and you have to help yourself through your entire lifetime to keep it; no one can do it for you.
“Also, try to be happy and love your fellow man.”
Consider that a prescription from Don Massie, PA-C.