An Immigrant’s Path

By:   January 31, 2017

Frantz Alphonse, a clinical year student of MEDEX Tacoma Class 3, comes to the physician assistant profession with a wealth of experience and skill. With eight years under his belt as a US Navy corpsman, and another five years working as an immunization technician for the Department of Defense, Frantz arrived at MEDEX with more hands-on patient care than many of his cohorts.

But there’s something bigger at play than Frantz’s prior medical knowledge. We observed this during his didactic year when Frantz participated in the student-run MEDEX Tacoma Urban Grace Foot Project. He was very present with the clients—homeless men and women who stop by the downtown Tacoma church for a free breakfast and to get their sore feet attended. Frantz showed great kindness, humility and tenderness towards each individual seated before him, their feet in his hands.

“If I think about it, my family could have easily ended up in their shoes—homeless and having nothing,” he says. “Sometimes I think about that. If my dad didn’t work so hard, we could have ended up in this place. So I leave any judgment outside the door and connect with them as people. You’re showing that you care, and that reflects back when they return to see you again.”

Frantz Alphonse of MEDEX Tacoma 3 and Dr. Kirk Harris go over the results of an EKG with a young patient.
An electrocardiogram shows the heart's electrical activity as line tracings on paper.
Frantz, a second year student at MEDEX Northwest, explains the EKG findings to the patient.
Dr. Kirk Harris is the owner of Littlerock Family Medicine in Tumwater, WA. He regularly precepts MEDEX students.
Together, Frantz and Dr. Harris listen to the patient's heart.
As part of his PA education, Frantz spent 4 months at Dr. Harris' practice in Tumwater, WA.
Kirk Harris, MD and Frantz Alphonse, PA-S

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Frantz Alphonse’s backstory is that of an immigrant refugee. Born in Haiti, his father decided to leave the Caribbean country due to the civil unrest of the early 90s. At age seven and a half, Frantz accompanied his father, stepmother, two brothers, a sister, and extended family to cross international waters in a small boat. In time, they were picked up by the US Navy and brought to Guantanamo Bay where they spent seven months.

The family had an uncle in San Francisco, so in 1991 he sponsored them to the Bay Area. Before long the lure of unskilled labor jobs drew them to Las Vegas. “My father was a casino porter, and my step mum did housekeeping to support us,” Frantz says. “Both of them worked while we went to school.”

In the Las Vegas school district there are specialty schools—magnet schools, as they’re called. Frantz explains: “You kind of get scouted out in junior high school. They come to an assembly and they ask you, ‘Based on your interests, what do you see yourself doing in the future?’ And if your grades meet the requirements, you can apply to the specialty schools.”

Frantz during high school graduation with his father

There were a number of different magnet schools based on various interests, including the Medical Magnet Program at Rancho High school. And that’s what Frantz chose.

In a regular high school, there would be five classes. As a medical student in a magnet school, Frantz had seven classes. “You’d get two extra classes to promote a stronger education in that field—things like A&P, cadaver studies and honors science classes,” he says. “It was hard work and I was only 15. You had to have the ambition, drive and grades to follow through and succeed in the program.”

Frantz’s real interest in medicine jump-started during his first observation at a hospital. “I saw how the doctor cared for the patient and it inspired me. She showed so much humility and compassion.”

“It made me want to go into a field where I can help others selflessly,” he tells us.

With that, Frantz knew that he needed to acquire more advanced knowledge of the medical field, and that eventually meant higher education. “My family had no money for college, so I considered that the next best option was the US Navy. I applied to the Navy as a Hospital Corpsmen.”

The US Army has their medics, but the Navy was more attractive to Frantz because of the promise of travel. “And I wanted to see the world,” he says. By joining the Navy he got to visit Japan, among many other places. “My biggest learning curve was while I was in Iraq. It was shocking to see so many patients who were near death and so wounded. I learned how to set my emotions aside and do what needed to be done to save these people.“

Frantz Alphonse aboard the USS Pearl Harbor in 2008.
Frantz on US Navy ceremonial Color Guard in Japan, 2003.
Frantz (center) during field medical training in 2003.
Frantz (right) during field medical training in 2003.
Frantz accompanied the Marines during a 2005 field training.
Frantz, 5th from the left, in Iraq during 2006-2007.
The makeshift medical setup that Frantz and other Navy corpsmen worked with in Iraq.
On a convoy in Kuwait during 2008.
With a field crew in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Frantz is tenth from the left near the center.
Frantz Alphonse in his native Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.

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As a Navy corpsman, he had opportunities to do a lot of medical procedures under the guidance of a physician or PA. In the life of a corpsman, “it’s see one, do one, teach one,” he tells us. The superiors would teach a procedure, and then observe as Frantz repeated the same. “You start it and they come back and see if you did a good job. And then they go on to the next patient. So I got a lot of patient experience in the Navy, especially when I went to Iraq.”

With eight years in the Navy, Frantz became very accomplished at minor surgery. After an honorable discharge, he moved into a lead role as an immunization tech for the Department of Defense, vaccinating the Marine Corp recruits arriving at boot camp in San Diego. That lasted five years, long enough for him to consider his next move into civilian life. Frantz began looking at PA schools.

Frantz at Camp Pendleton, CA in 2006

His supervisor at the DOD was a physician assistant, and had an influence over him in this new direction. “He was my mentor at the time. In the past I had a lot of exposure to PA’s. In the military, PA’s have a wide variety of responsibilities and can do a lot. That’s true on the civilian side, too. They can change positions and change fields within medicine. I find this striking because what you discover about physicians is that they get stuck in one field, whereas PA’s can do something for five years, and then can switch and go on to the next field. Once they find their niche—a place they feel they belong—then a PA can go on to advance their career. My mentor taught me in depth what PA’s do. I did the research, and it was the next best step to advance my career. The thinking was to bring my past experiences and advance this more, and being a PA would be the next step.”

While working on his prerequisites, Frantz was yet to earn his college Bachelor’s degree. “I was doing full time work and full time school, so getting a Bachelor’s was going to take a while, especially with kids.”

The PA profession is about to change to an all Master’s program in 2021, and most of the 200+ programs in the US have already switched over. That left about ten programs across the country where Frantz would be considered, one of them being MEDEX Northwest. With four sites between Washington State and Alaska, the MEDEX Tacoma and Spokane sites were still accepting Bachelor’s level students until 2019.

Not one to put all his eggs in one basket, Frantz applied to MEDEX and several other PA schools still accepting Bachelor’s level students. He got one interview apart from MEDEX with a program in Rochester, New York. “I had an interview over Skype,” he tells us. “That one I was worried about. I said, okay, maybe I’ll use this one as a stepping-stone and learn from the questions that they ask me. And then the other schools declined me because I was missing a pre-requisite, or my pre-reqs weren’t strong enough.”

Things were different with MEDEX. He was scheduled for an interview.

“When I had the MEDEX interview it was a different vibe, they left me feeling motivated” he says. “When I went to orientation sessions at other schools, their message was, okay, you do all you have to do to get here. We’re not going to help you in anyway. And whatever you do, make sure you have the pre-reqs. This seemed discouraging. But there was a different feeling that I got from MEDEX. It was, okay, we’re here to help you. We’re here to help you achieve what you want to achieve, and I liked that first impression. I felt encouraged from my interaction with MEDEX. It was like, oh yeah, this is where I belong.”

Frantz (left) attends to the feet of a client at the MEDEX Tacoma Foot Project during his didactic year.
Frantz Alphonse with his father and grandfather.
The Alphonse family: wife Darishma, son Soley & daughter Gaia.

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Frantz came to MEDEX with an excellent military medical background and strong prerequisites. “You might say that I had everything MEDEX needed. I had the experience, and also I love that they have a long history of outreach to the military. For me, that was one of their strengths. My thinking was that with MEDEX, I could see myself building more of a community and sense of home.”

Frantz was selected to become part of Class 3 at the recently established MEDEX Tacoma site, strategically located close to Joint Base Lewis McChord and the Naval Base Kitsap. We wondered what it has been like for him and his family to move from Southern California to the Pacific Northwest.

“Coming from San Diego, the weather is a little gloomy here,” he says. “But my wife and I, we love the outdoors, and there are a lot of opportunities here for hiking and sightseeing.”

Even better, Frantz has found a community of friends here among his Tacoma Class 3 cohorts. He and his family are leaning towards staying in the Northwest after graduation in August of 2017. “I think it’s largely because of the family aspects,” he tells us. “We’ve made really good friends here and built a bit of a support system. I have two kids, and a couple of people from the class have kids too, which has been really nice. We’re developing strong relationships where I think we see us settling here.”

Frantz has nothing but praise for his fellow classmates.

Frantz with his wife Darishma, son Soley, and daughter Gaia on a hike in Washington State.

“We have an amazing group of people, and are pretty much family now. There are different people from different backgrounds, and yet the cohesion is amazing. It reminds me how things were back in military. People come together from all different cultures. Even though we are all so different, we all support each other and do amazing work. I’m looking forward to keeping in contact with a lot of people after we graduate, yeah.”

At the time of this interview, we were visiting Frantz at the site of his 4-month family practice preceptorship in Tumwater, Washington. Under the instruction of Dr. Kirk Harris at his practice, Littlerock Family Medicine, Frantz was exposed to a wider variety of patient issues than he generally saw in the military.

“Going into this rotation, I’m seeing senior patients and getting exposure to diabetes, which I didn’t see a lot in the Navy,” he says. “In the military the patients are young and healthy individuals. What is appealing about this posting is working with patients who aren’t so young and have diseases like hypertension and diabetes. But most importantly I’m helping the patients who are older in age, giving the help they need to be healthy.”

Ahead are several more months of short rotations including surgery, cardiology, dermatology and behavioral medicine. All are meant to expose Frantz to the types of medical practices and specialties available to him upon graduation. Back in 2016, we had a glimpse of Frantz working with homeless clients at the Tacoma Foot Project. The caring and selfless way he conducted himself at that time made it clear the he is a MEDEX mission fit. Wherever Frantz decides to apply his talents as a PA, patients will be better off because of him.

Dennis Raymond is the Communications Manager for MEDEX Northwest in Seattle, Washington. He can be reached at