Alumni Making a Difference

Testing Her Mettle

Karrie Crosby on the rigors of UT Southwestern's physician assistant program and proving her mentors right

When Karrie Crosby was 3 years old, an unsupervised Alaskan Malamute mauled her ear without warning, leading to years of plastic surgery. She kept in touch with the plastic surgeon who successfully re-attached her ear, beginning a lifetime’s gratitude and curiosity with medicine.

At age 19, she applied to UT Southwestern Medical Center’s School of Public Health, which offered a Bachelor’s of Physician Assistant (PA) Studies. To her delight and astonishment, she was accepted as one of the three youngest students in her class – the average age of her classmates was 38.

Karrie Crosby
Karrie Crosby Illustration by Robert D. Waller/UT Southwestern Medical Center; Source images provided by Karrie Crosby

After graduating in 1994, Mrs. Crosby went to work in rural Big Sandy, Texas, a town of about 1,200 people west of Longview amidst the pines of East Texas. The medical needs of the community were relentless. The nearest physician supervising the local team providing medical care was 30 miles away. Mrs. Crosby found herself at the epicenter of small-town emergency and primary care, triaging everything from hands shredded by mishandled farming equipment to meningitis.

Since then, Mrs. Crosby has risen to become the presiding officer of the Texas Physician Assistant Board, the organization responsible for issuing physician assistant licenses in Texas. She currently serves as a physician assistant for Baylor Scott & White Health. Working in family medicine near Waco, Texas, she reflected on her training at UT Southwestern and how it gave her an advantage in team-based clinical care settings.

What do you remember from your time at UT Southwestern?

I was under immense pressure to succeed. There were three other young admits like me, but for the most part, everyone in the program was older. I wanted to prove that UT Southwestern hadn’t squandered or made a mistake allowing someone relatively young to enter the program among more mature adults. It humbles you when failure is a possibility. But Ed Sullivan, who was a practicing PA and served as Director of the physician assistant program at the time, and Nancy Fain, who served as Associate Dean of the School of Health Professions, saw something in me, and both were highly invested in my success. Of the 1,500 applicants that year, only 38 of us were selected. So, I felt that entrusting someone as young as me to make the most of the opportunity might have implications for other young applicants down the road if I didn’t succeed.

Nancy Fain and Karrie Crosby
Karrie Crosby, right, with her mentor, Nancy Fain Provided by Karrie Crosby

What is a physician assistant’s role in caring for a patient?

Medicine affords you the opportunity to meet and help people, often when they are at their worst. Beyond showing compassion, you need to be a good listener. Despite the rapid pace that came with being the sole medical practitioner in town, the experience of first practicing medicine in a small town taught me the value of slowing down to be present with my patients.

People say the PA spends more time with patients than doctors do, and to a certain extent that’s true. Often, what a patient wants first is to be heard, and the role of a PA within the context of the larger medical team is often to build rapport with the patient and meet them where they are. If patients feel heard, that gives the provider a better foundation to build the visit on. I have never taken for granted the fact that patients extend a tremendous amount of trust. I strive to do my best in every patient interaction. I know my boundaries and never hesitate to collaborate with my physician or other colleagues.

How did UT Southwestern influence your career?

The training that a PA has at UT Southwestern is rigorous. As PA students, we had the same responsibilities as the medical students, and that is mirrored in the training. While a PA is not empowered to do everything an M.D. is empowered to do, PA students are responsible for learning many of the same procedures and functions of physicians use in clinical, emergency, and hospital settings. We were expected to leave UT Southwestern with a foundation of knowledge that allowed us to practice in primary care or a medical specialty, but because of UT Southwestern’s culture of professionalism and teamwork, we also knew our role amid a larger clinical team that is 100% focused on the patient.

Dr. Sade Spencer
Karrie Crosby, back row, left, poses with her classmates from the Class of 1994. Provided by Karrie Crosby

What have you valued most in your career?

Getting to a place where people are comfortable trusting me with their health care needs and knowing I have their best interests at heart. Patients have many choices for their health care. The fact that they make an appointment with me, recommend me to their friends, and may choose to come back to see me more than once is extremely humbling.

Because I began the PA journey at such a young age, showing other young women and those considering a career in medicine that choosing to be a PA instead of a physician does not mean that you are settling for something less. I have had the privilege of serving in many roles professionally to represent the PA profession over the years. I started as a legislative committee member for the Texas Academy of Physician Assistants and was part of a task force to lobby, help draft, and work for the success of legislation to modernize PA practice in Texas.