You could say that John Betz, PA-C (Seattle Class 1), heralded the beginning of a grand experiment for the UW School of Medicine. And for patients in Othello, Wash. And, not least, for two Othello physicians: Richard Bunch, M.D., and Kenneth Pershall, M.D.

In the 1960s, Bunch and Pershall were stretched thin from caring for the growing population of Othello — nearly 200 miles away from Seattle and 100 miles from Spokane. “We found ourselves up day and night trying to care for people, and we could not get help to do it,” says Bunch.

The brand-new MEDEX Northwest program offered a potential solution to the dire lack of medical professionals: John Betz and fellow classmate Paul Snyder. The two men were part of MEDEX’s first class, the brainchild of MEDEX founder Richard Smith, M.D., and they were slated to spend a clinical year in Othello. Bunch and Pershall were to act as mentors.

Initially, the two physicians thought they’d just ask the fledgling PAs to help handle patient overflow. What happened, instead, was that both Betz and Snyder secured panels of patients. “I developed a group of patients that I loved, and they put up with me,” says Betz. “Everybody had a full schedule.”

Learning by doing, that was the rule for the two students. The grand experiment proved so successful that Betz came back to work at the 14th Avenue Clinic, spending 44 years in medical service and becoming a part of many families’ lives.

Betz also became an influential part of the life of Annie Coronado, PA-C (Yakima Class 18). Coronado met Betz while she was an R.N. at the clinic. “I was immediately impressed with Annie’s depth of understanding and the fact that she identifies well with patients,” Betz says.

One day, Betz popped the question: would Coronado take over his practice when he retired? “I had to think, ‘I’m not going to live forever,’” he says. “And our patients had such confidence in her.”

The decision to go back to school to become a PA wasn’t easy for Coronado. She sat down with Betz a few times to discuss it. “Do you think I can do this?” Coronado recalls asking. “And, of course, he said, ‘Oh, yeah, you can do it. You’re smart. You can do anything.’ He’s always held me up on this pedestal.”

After graduation, Coronado returned to Othello, now working at the 14th Street Clinic’s sister site, the Columbia Basin Health Association Clinic. On day one, she started with a full schedule, no openings. “It was just a shock. I just couldn’t believe that patients were waiting for me to come back to work,” she says.

Today, Betz is retired, having passed the torch to Coronado. He leaves behind a legacy: hundreds of lives touched, 70-some PA students mentored and, not least, the sure knowledge that physician assistants make a tremendous difference in bringing healthcare to rural areas.

These accomplishments are not lost on Coronado, who’s making her own way as Betz’s successor. To this day, she tells patients that Betz left some huge shoes to fill. They reply, “Honey, he’s had 40-some years on you. You’ll get there.”

Two MEDEX Northwest grads — separated by years, joined by compassion — serve the Othello, Wash., community.