How a Helicopter Crew Chief and Bioterrorism Expert Ended Up a PA

Meet Johnnie Gilpen, PA-C

January 16, 2020

By Caitlin Harrison

Johnnie Gilpen, PA-C, had a long and varied career by the time he was accepted to the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center PA program in 2017. His unique career path led him to where he is today: an emergency medicine PA and an involved leader.

In 1996, Gilpen, right, then a Navy corpsman, was stationed in Tunisia.

Military Service and Education
Gilpen joined the Oklahoma National Guard at 19, where he worked as a helicopter crew chief. ““When I was flying and helping the medics in the helicopter, it was the first time in my life that I felt like I did something good,” Gilpen said. “Medicine gave me a sense of purpose. It gave me a sense of actually doing something with my life.” Gilpen left the National Guard, and inspired by the medical professionals he’d worked with, joined the U.S. Navy as a Fleet Marine Force (FMF) Corpsmen. He eventually returned home to Oklahoma to pursue a degree in microbiology at the University of Oklahoma. While completing his degree, he received a National Institute of Health (NIH) Bioterrorism and Emerging Infectious Disease Fellowship, where he was trained to respond to foreign animal disease outbreaks. He received his undergraduate degree, and kept right on with this education at OUHSC, where he completed a graduate degree in biostatistics and epidemiology.

“I happened to be at the right place at the right time…people knew I was able to take care of myself abroad. Next thing I knew, I was in Mexico during the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak,” said Gilpen. After he completed his graduate degree, Gilpen got a job as a disaster response epidemiologist for the federal government. He traveled extensively during this time and worked in South Africa, the Philippines, Israel, Japan, and Mexico. He trained first responders and healthcare professionals on how to respond to disasters. But while he traveled, he had an additional goal in mind: PA school. He didn’t let his foreign travel stop him from working on his pre-requisite class requirements. “I got creative,” Gilpen laughed. “While working in the Philippines, I took anatomy through South Arkansas Tech University. In South Africa, I took a medical microbiology course through NC State.”

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PA School and Student Leadership
Gilpen returned home to Oklahoma, where he got a job with the Oklahoma State Department of Health as a trauma and emergency systems research biostatistician. As he got closer and closer to PA school, he also was applying all his career experiences – his bioterrorism training, his work with West Nile Virus – to his work at an Oklahoma hospital.

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Gilpen applied to PA school three times throughout the years and was accepted to the OUHSC in 2017. The program director, who was also a Navy veteran, encouraged Gilpen to get involved in a leadership role. Being one of the oldest students in his class, Gilpen didn’t think a student society officer role would be a good fit, so he researched the House of Delegates (HOD) student delegate position. Gilpen was elected to the HOD student delegation in both 2018 and 2019 and represented the PA student voice at the 2018 HOD in New Orleans and the 2019 HOD in Denver.

During his time as a 2019 student delegate, Gilpen co-authored two resolutions about veterans and submitted them to the HOD from the student delegation. Both resolutions passed and became the Task Force on Veterans in PA School. Gilpen is a member of this task force today.

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“My goal is to give. I want to help make a difference and use the skills sets I have. People have been gracious to me, so I want to use the platform I have to help the next generation – as a PA, as an educator, as a volunteer. My legacy…I would like it to be about service.” 

Johnnie Gilpen is a Pat Tillman Scholar. He is a member of AAPA’s Veterans Caucus as the Student and Early Career PA Representative and AAPA’s Task Force on Veterans in PA School. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center – Oklahoma City in 2019 and will begin an Emergency Medicine Advance Clinician Post-Graduate Fellowship through Team Health in March 2020. 

Caitlin Harrison is AAPA’s Student Academy Staff Advisor and can be reached at [email protected].