Wells Holbrook has only been a physician assistant at DispatchHealth for a year, but saving people’s lives and looking out for their health is something he’s been doing his whole career.
Before he was volunteering his time with the search and rescue team for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Holbrook spent years in the military, training Air Force pilots in survival, evasion and resistance skills.
Holbrook’s commitment to the health and safety of East Tennesseans extends to providing urgent care for patients in their homes, and in the wilderness.
Graduating from PA school. Completing Air Force SERE Specialist Training is harder overall and a much rarer achievement, but in the military it was my only responsibility – clothing, food, and housing were covered so I could focus exclusively on training – and I was single then. Being admitted and completing PA school was the culmination of an ambitious plan when I left active duty in 2018. The odds of everything coming together were not in my favor; I had no background in science or experience in healthcare, and I was starting from scratch in my 30’s with children.
In becoming an Air Force SERE Specialist, I had already survived two cuts that wash out about 75% and 50% of candidates, respectively. After graduating, we still had another six months to a year to certify as instructors. A series of trainers gave different, sometimes conflicting advice, all of which I tried to incorporate. At year’s end, they weren’t happy and I was nearly cut from the career. One final trainer helped me strip back to basics and focus purely on the standard, and I nailed it after that. That taught me that it’s crucial to master and revisit fundamentals.
The next steps will be the evolution of my career in national service from the Tennessee Air National Guard to the Uniformed Public Health Service, where I intend to build on my skills as a physician assistant by deploying to humanitarian relief and disaster response efforts across the nation. I’m a young PA still honing my craft but I look forward to continuing to integrate my military experience with my passion for teaching, search and rescue, and wilderness medicine, while adding these new capabilities in disaster medicine and finding novel ways to serve through this new role.
I’m gravely concerned about our failure to respond to the changing climate, and I anticipate increasing natural disasters and infrastructure failures impacting our health and living conditions throughout my lifetime. I hope to be part of efforts to integrate and reinforce our healthcare and emergency response resources from the local to federal levels to anticipate and respond to these events by improving coordination, providing training to assets at all levels and abilities and setting a template for people to respond as team rather than collapsing in the face of these challenges.
With my first patient as a wilderness EMT in the Smokies, I fell prey to anchoring bias. The initial injury report didn’t match the presentation, and I was thrown off my process. It didn’t cause harm and the patient probably wasn’t aware, but I was struggling to reset my train of thought and re-approach the patient correctly. I’ve been cognizant of this tendency with every subsequent patient, and I think from the micro to macro level, it’s important to be aware of the tendency to anchor early, develop preconceived notions and fail to approach a situation with an open mind.
Equity: providing access (medical, outdoors, aid and assistance) regardless of circumstance and means.
The idea that everyone should be a leader is overrated. Technical abilities and teamwork drive the engine while a few leaders can steer. In certain sectors, too much energy goes into developing leadership rather than just helping people be proficient and happy in their current roles. Going further, incentives are too often tied to “leadership” rather than basic competence and reliability, which can breed cultures where people generate unnecessary work or re-work processes just to show that they’re managing something. Streamline processes and get out of people’s way.
Reliability (and) accountability. Show up prepared to work (and) do work you’re proud to answer for. Be kind.
As an outdoor enthusiast, I find it sad how little greenspace and recreation is available in Knoxville. Living in Spokane (a similar-sized city) and in Prince George’s County, Maryland, we had huge parks, playgrounds and public athletic facilities scattered throughout the city, not just near wealthy neighborhoods. Knoxville has few substantial playgrounds, and the greenways don’t connect in a way that allows for bicycle or foot transit through the town. While I love the urban wilderness, it’s only convenient to downtown and South Knox dwellers with nothing comparable in other areas. Most of the city is hopelessly car-centric, inhospitable and dangerous for anyone trying to get around by other means.
For growing up in Tennessee, I’ve been to the Grand Canyon a surprising number of times. Starting with a visit to the rim as a child, I’ve also ridden mules down into the canyon, rafted through it twice, run across it rim-to-rim twice, and coordinated a mass casualty simulation of a bus crash at the edge.
This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity.