AF physician assistant named ‘PA of Year’

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Lauren Rogers
  • 35th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
(This feature is part of the "Through Airmen's Eyes" series on These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)

It was her first year working as a physician assistant, and a patient had just left her exam room when she heard a burst of gunshots in the distance. Within seconds, screams filled the hospital as people scrambled for cover. In the midst of the chaos, a piercing silence fell over the clinic and her heart raced as the sound of the gunman's footsteps drew closer and closer to her office door.

The gunman walked right past her door, pivoted, and passed her door again -- all the while spraying rounds from a semi-automatic rifle throughout the 92nd Medical Group, at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash.

June 20, 1994, was a tragic day for the Air Force. Four people were killed and 22 were wounded before a security forces senior airman shot and killed the gunman. Almost 20 years later, Lt. Col. Melanie Ellis, the 35th Medical Operations Squadron commander, still remembers her medical instincts kicking in as she played a pivotal role transporting multiple victims from the base hospital to an impromptu helicopter-landing zone where victims were evacuated to the local trauma center.

After accumulating an impressive résumé of assignments and accomplishments through adventure and challenges with each experience as an Air Force PA, Ellis was named the 2014 federal service PA of the year by the American Academy of Physician Assistants. 

The PA of the Year award encompasses an entire career of accomplishments. It honors the PA who has demonstrated exemplary service in the federal sector, defined as working for any of the uniformed services, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Public Health Service or other related federal agencies.

Ellis' career began as an enlisted surgical technician. She was selected to attend PA training and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1993. Several years later, she became the clinical coordinator for the same training program where she managed the medical rotations for dozens of PA students.

Today, with more than 21 years of experience, Ellis credits her success to her Air Force mentors, hard work, an amazingly supportive family and good timing.

She tells the story of how being at the right place at the right time transformed a brief elevator conversation into a career path traveling abroad.

"It was a one minute conversation with a retired Biomedical Sciences Corps Chief, who simply asked me what I wanted to do in my career," Ellis said. "We'd spent several days working together at a Human Performance Enhancement conference and I told him I'd love to work overseas one day. He must have made a few phone calls because the next day at work I received a call from my associate corps chief offering me an assignment in Belgium working with NATO," Ellis said.

From there, countless opportunities arose for Ellis to showcase PA capabilities around the world. Her short elevator conversation indirectly opened the door to many "boots-on-the-ground" experiences in Afghanistan, Germany, Ghana, Iraq, Japan, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Botswana.

While working as an international health specialist, or IHS, on a Building Partnership Capacity mission in Botswana, Ellis found herself mentoring the first female member of the Botswana Defense Force. In addition to teaching medical disaster management, Ellis helped the first BDF female develop doctrine that incorporated standards for female service members.

"That experience was amazing," Ellis said. "I could have never imagined the second and third order effects that IHS mission would bring."

On a separate assignment, Ellis co-authored the medical concept of operations for the NATO no-fly zone in Libya and facilitated the evacuation of the wounded and dead after the Benghazi Embassy attack in October 2012.

During her career, she was the only Airman in an Army Flight Surgeon course at Fort Rucker, Ala., and later served as the executive officer to the assistant AF surgeon general for medical force development where she coordinated policies for 39,000 active duty medical professionals.

"I have never seen anyone with the same depth of experience evidencing her brilliance, tenacity and dedication in all my years of supervising physician assistants," said Col. (Dr.) Alden Hilton, the 35th Medical Group commander.

"She hit the ground running at Misawa (AB) and advanced the Air Force surgeon general's vision of tailoring medical care to the unique mission requirements of our population, working to preserve and enhance the performance of our warrior Airmen," Hilton emphasized.

Since arriving at Misawa AB, Ellis has matched up her medical personnel with various high-intensity units on base, such as the 35th Civil Engineer Squadron Explosive Ordnance Disposal and 35th Security Forces Squadron through in-depth briefings and face-to-face interactions.

"It's important that our technicians never lose sight of how medics impact the mission," Ellis said. "Speaking with the different units, with strenuous jobs, helps us understand their unique medical needs and shows the service members how seriously we take our role as healthcare providers."

Through all the experience and accomplishments, Ellis continues to emphasize mentoring and paying it forward to the next generation.

"My favorite assignment until now was clinical coordinator for the Interservice PA Program. Launching new Air Force physician assistants and growing future military leaders is extremely rewarding." Ellis concluded. "My former students are my 'other children.' I love watching them grow professionally and hearing about their accomplishments. I feel the same way about my squadron. I'm going to push them, like I was pushed in my early years, to achieve all the great things I know they are capable of accomplishing."