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On the Front Lines: Specialist who cared for Spokane’s first AIDS patients screens VA Medical Center workers for COVID-19

UPDATED: Tue., April 21, 2020

Physician assistant Theresa Schimmels specializes in dermatology and now has shifted her focus to COVID-19. She is photographed on Monday, April 20. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Physician assistant Theresa Schimmels specializes in dermatology and now has shifted her focus to COVID-19. She is photographed on Monday, April 20. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

If not for the COVID-19 pandemic, Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center physician assistant Theresa Schimmels would be preparing to head to Seattle to receive a lifetime achievement award from MEDEX Northwest, the University of Washington School of Medicine program where she received her education.

Instead the dermatology specialist from Spokane has taken on a new role as a part of the VA Medical Center’s COVID-19 response, mainly by screening employees before they start a shift at the facility for the past three weeks.

“I feel like it’s a huge responsibility,” Schimmels said. “When they first asked for volunteers for this, I volunteered because I knew there would be people who would be more afraid than I was.”

Part of that is informed by Schimmels’ emergency medical background, she said. She worked at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in the 1980s during the early days of Heart-Flight, the original emergency helicopter transport program at the hospital.

Schimmels, who was a respiratory therapist at the time, also volunteered to care for some of Spokane’s first HIV/AIDS patients at the beginning of the epidemic.

“You never forget the drills,” Schimmels said. “You never forget the procedures. Some of what I’m doing now feels like an echo of that.”

At the VA Medical Center, Schimmels sits alongside nurses who screen each employee, then examines anyone whom the nurses are unsure about. She also screens employees who recently called out of work for an illness or recorded a fever – some of whom she’s sent home as a precaution.

“I get to ask the tougher questions,” Schimmels said. “I get to be kind of the gatekeeper.”

“It’s about being prepared and making decisions for the benefit of others,” she added later.

Schimmels still gets to do her normal work in dermatology during the latter part of her day, now mainly through virtual visits due to COVID-19 safety measures. Her care often involves skin cancers, rashes and acne, she said.

“The limitation is, of course, you can’t do a biopsy,” Schimmels said.

Schimmels, who is a veteran herself, said she’s found it extremely rewarding to work at the VA Medical Center serving former service members since 2017.

She served in the Washington Air National Guard for more than 20 years as a professional musician in Fairchild’s 560th Air Force Band, known as the Band of the Northwest until it was deactivated in 2013.

She was in the Spokane Community College respiratory therapy program at the same time. And her roles included piano, clarinet, percussion and vocals, as well as band operations non-commissioned officer for about a decade.

“Being able to give back a little bit of what (the military) gave me… I can’t tell you how good that makes my heart and soul feel,” Schimmels said. “And I feel like that experience helps me with the experience I have with my veteran patients.”

Schimmels was eventually encouraged by other medical professional to enroll at MEDEX Northwest, which she graduated from in 1999 with her physician assistant certification.

“To help with the underserved, that’s what being a PA is all about,” Schimmels said. “At the veterans center, a lot of people have nothing.”

Before the VA Medical Center, she worked at MultiCare Rockwood Clinic in dermatology for many years.

And during her career she’s served as president of the Washington Academy of Physician Assistants, as well as a member of the American Academy of Physician Assistants and Washington Medical Commission.

She now mentors students at the VA Medical Center, including those in the MEDEX Northwest program. She is currently advising second-year physician assistant student Julia Snider.

Schimmels said her proudest moments are when former students call her for help with a patient, “and then have them get it right and know I taught them how to do that.”

She was initially “flabbergasted” about the lifetime achievement award from the University of Washington, she said. But “it made me realize that I’ve been doing this a long time already.”

And now, as daily case counts in Spokane County flatten out, Schimmels said she takes heart in keeping her colleagues and veteran patients a little safer.

“A lot of them it’s, ‘Hey, you’re safe. We’re screening,’ ” she said. “Then they can pick up and brush off and carry on.”

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