From Cambodia to Seattle: A PA’s Medical Journey

It doesn’t matter if you’re in the OR or following up on a patient after surgery, says Linda Lai, PA-C (Seattle Class 28). “An effective physician assistant acts as a surgeon’s right hand.”

Lai works at Swedish Neuroscience Institute with John Hsiang, M.D., Ph.D., a neurosurgeon who specializes in spine care and minimally invasive techniques. Hsiang, Lai and others share the patient load — Lai’s presence and the presence of other trusted staff allow the surgeon to take on the more complex cases. It’s a partnership that he deeply appreciates. “I’ve worked with a number of PAs, and Linda has an extraordinary work ethic. She is reliable, responsible and willing to learn.” And, Dr. Hsiang adds, “The patients like her a lot.”

Linda Lai, PA-C (Seattle Class 28), credits MEDEX Northwest for a solid education. And she liked the people. “They weren’t cookie-cutter,” she says. “They kept the material interesting, relevant and fun.”

Lai has an aptitude for medicine — in part, perhaps, because of her family’s history. Her father was a physician in Cambodia; later, after emigrating to the U.S., he worked as a lab technician and PA. Lai was 11 when the family moved to Indiana, and she shadowed her dad when he saw patients. The opportunity gave her a window on the world of medicine and whetted her appetite for medical practice.

Later, Lai’s family moved to the West Coast. When Lai decided to become a physician assistant, MEDEX Northwest was the natural choice. The Seattle program allowed her to stay close to her family, and gave her exactly what she says she needed: a solid base of knowledge on which to develop her career path.

That career path led first to a position in a family medicine practice, where Lai enjoyed a fairly autonomous role. Four years ago, she shifted her attention from interventional radiology to spinal surgery. She enjoys the change. “It’s different than being in a clinic,” Lai says. “You get to see the full range of what’s involved, from consultation through surgery and post-operative care.”

At first, Lai found the work technically challenging because of the equipment, which includes a retractor and a tubing dilation system that helps direct placement of screws in lumbar surgery. Although she has mastered the job’s technical components, her work continues to inspire her; she’s seen progress in techniques and equipment that result in patient benefits, including reduction in tissue trauma and blood loss in spinal surgery. “The surgery is not necessarily a cure,” Lai says, “but seeing a patient return to an improved level of function is very rewarding.”

Lai works in a fast-growing practice and recently took on another role: that of supervisor. Juggling medical and administrative responsibilities is a new challenge, but she’s looking forward to enhancing her team’s workflow and communication — and to continuing to mentor other PAs. “She leads by example,” says Loverne Greg Jimenez, PA-C, (Seattle Class 40), who has worked with Lai for two years. “Linda has been instrumental in my development as a PA in neurosurgery. Working with her has been a pleasure.”

Happy in a job she loves, Lai has another career goal. After her children are grown, she wants to do missionary work in Asia. When she does, she’ll come full circle, completing a family story started in Cambodia many years ago.

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