2020 PA of the Year Has Volunteered in Bolivia for More Than 20 Years

Nicole Dettmann is a Volunteer, a Professor, and a Clinically Practicing PA

By Sarah Blugis

April 27, 2020

Nicole Dettmann, DSc, MPH, PA-C

For Nicole Dettmann, DSc, MPH, PA-C, AAPA’s 2020 PA of the Year, her interest in a medical career began with a box of grapefruits.

She was a sophomore in high school and a classmate was selling fruit, fundraising for a volunteer trip with Amigos de las Americas, a nonprofit organization with public health/youth leadership programs throughout Latin America. The more Dettmann learned about the program, she says, the more it interested her.

“I volunteered for the next three summers on community sanitation and human vaccination programs in Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Brazil,” she said. The experience taught her that youth can become leaders for positive change, and it also taught her the importance of basic public health education. “I began to understand why all people need access to quality, compassionate healthcare.”

This led her to explore a career in medicine and eventually, a career as a PA. And for the last 20 years, Dettmann has volunteered with the Foundación de Salud del Rio Beni in the Northwestern Amazon Basin of Bolivia.

The PA of the Year Award honors PAs who demonstrate exemplary service to the community; exemplify the PA profession’s philosophy of providing accessible, quality healthcare to all; and further the image of the profession in a positive, meaningful way.

Throughout her years volunteering in Bolivia, Dettmann has developed mobile medical clinics to provide primary care and dental services to remote communities, to people who otherwise would not have regular access to care. She has also developed health education programs for local schools and communities.

Dettmann helps to schedule clinics, provide funding for clinics so that patients can receive care at no cost, and works with local providers and staff on the content of education programs and delivery of care. In particular, Dettmann says, she enjoys working with local indigenous Tsimané communities which traditionally have had limited contact with the Bolivian government and other institutions.

“My hope is that this award brings more attention to the importance of community-based health programs, not just globally but in our own communities,” Dettmann says. “The world is so interconnected that making improvements which allow all people to access basic healthcare helps each of us, no matter where we are on this small planet.”

In addition to her volunteer work, Dettmann practices clinically in the emergency department at Newton Wellesley Emergency Medicine Specialists in Newton, Massachusetts. There, she spends 60 clinical hours per month in the Level II Trauma Center.

“No other profession would provide the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life the way being a PA has for me,” Dettmann says. “I am humbled by my patients’ abilities to confide in me during their most vulnerable moments. Being able to have someone place their trust in me is a great honor, and very rewarding.”

For Dettmann, another rewarding aspect of being a PA is the chance to inspire other people to consider volunteerism – including her students. Dettmann works as an Associate Professor and Director of Clinical Education for the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences Manchester-Worcester PA Studies Program. Her students, she says, never cease to amaze her, and are her motivation to do what she does.

For her work both abroad and at home, Dettmann has also been honored with the 2018 MCPHS University Inspiration Award and the 2016 Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) Clinical Education Award. From 2015-2017, she was an appointed member of PAEA’s Cultural Competence Committee, in which she assisted in research and development of resources to train PA students in cultural competency.

Dettmann’s next volunteer project will be working with a local group in Bolivia to protect the Toromonas, a previously uncontacted indigenous community discovered in 2016 in the Bolivian Amazon. Because the Toromonas have never had contact with non-indigenous groups, she says, “the health outcomes could be catastrophic for the uncontacted tribes if exposed to common viruses and other sources of disease.”

Here at home, Dettmann loves the challenge of working in both clinical and educational settings. And she loves educating others and watching them grow to be passionate members of the PA profession. PAs, she says, have a lot to offer.

“I try to instill the importance of service to my students,” Dettmann says. “I try to instill the idea that when you decide to notice, when you decide to make a difference, even in a small way, you have taken the first step in changing the world.”

2020 AAPA Award Recipients