Brenda Diaz culminates her calling at Pfeiffer: PA program moves university into rural healthcare

In 2016, shortly after arriving at Pfeiffer University to start its Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies (MS-PAS) program, Dr. Brenda Diaz came across a statue of Emily C. Prudden (1832-1915) on the University’s Misenheimer campus. Intrigued, she read more about Prudden, who founded several schools in western North Carolina, including Oberlin Home and School, which eventually became Pfeiffer College.

In Prudden, Diaz would come to see “an amazing woman with a strong sense of vocation and calling, a true leader” who sought to improve the lives of rural residents through the expansion of educational resources.

“I drew a lot from that as I got Pfeiffer’s PA program off the ground,” she said. “I’m glad I spent the time to understand Emily Prudden. She was quite inspiring.”

Diaz is now the former Anne Louise Keeney chairwoman and program director for MS-PAS, having relinquished that post recently for health reasons. Professor Dale Patterson is serving as interim director of MS-PAS until a national search uncovers Diaz’s permanent successor.

Diaz’s charge at Pfeiffer was to produce more PAs who would practice in rural areas, thus addressing shortfalls in the delivery of primary and specialty care for the 20 percent of the population who live in those areas. In the North Carolina counties near Pfeiffer, the effects of these shortfalls have caused rates of prostate cancer, infant mortality and maternal mortality that are two and a half times higher than the national average.

Starting a PA program is one of the most challenging undertakings in higher education. The first cohort of students in Pfeiffer’s program began taking classes in January 2020 after the University received a difficult-to-obtain “Accreditation-Provisional” status by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) — four years after Diaz began her role as program director.

Diaz compiled one voluminous binder after another documenting the fulfillment of ARC-PA’s exacting standards for starting a PA program as she developed a curriculum and hired staff. She likened the process to scholarly work in which “everything is evidence-based and research-based.”

Diaz knows a lot about scholarship, having earned several degrees, including a Doctor of Medical Science with a concentration in PA education from the University of Lynchburg (Virginia). A key component of Pfeiffer’s MS-PAS program is nine student clinical rotations, most of which take place in rural settings, after a 15-month didactic phase of training; this is reflective of research indicating students who do their rotations in rural areas are more likely to practice in one after graduation.

Diaz also had a hand in designing and equipping the Center for Health Sciences in downtown Albemarle, as well as lining up financial backing for its construction. Since opening in September 2020, this facility, a product of Little Diversified Architectural Design, has housed both Pfeiffer’s MS-PAS and its Master of Occupational Therapy (MSOT) programs. It’s also become a catalyst for the revitalization of Albemarle’s downtown.

Roger L. Dick, the CEO of Uwharrie Bank in Albemarle, is one of the staunchest supporters of the Center for Health Sciences.

“Brenda Diaz has the heart of a saint (for) her desire and motivation to provide health care to people in rural places by training young people who are a part of those same communities to return to their homes to address the healthcare deficiencies of their communities,” he said. “Brenda’s love and unselfish desire as a true servant leader was the catalyst in Pfeiffer’s early success with the startup of the Center for Health Sciences. She provided vision and purpose to this effort of the University to address the healthcare needs of rural places.”

Pfeiffer President Dr. Scott Bullard is leading fundraising efforts for the Center for Health Sciences, which cost $18.3 million to build. In his eyes, what Diaz has done during her tenure at Pfeiffer all adds up to a “mission accomplished.”

“She truly performed a miracle in 2018 and 2019 in terms of helping the various accrediting bodies see the need for a PA school in this region and helping them comprehend the lengths that the community here would go to in order to help Pfeiffer’s vision become a reality,” he said. “It was exciting and really foundational for moving the University in a new direction. I’m very sad that Brenda is leaving: Her vision for a PA program that would focus on rural medicine was very important, not just for her department but for the entire University.”

That vision was a response to the fact that just 15 percent of PAs work in non-urban areas. It began to take hold in the middle 1990s, the result of serendipity: Prior to Pfeiffer, Diaz’s career as a PA had led to professorships at universities in Florida and several clinician positions. Her first positions were in her native New York City, where between 1989 and 1994, she worked at the Rikers Island Correctional Facility and, then, at Morris Heights Health Center in The Bronx.

The outlook of Diaz’s career would change dramatically during a chance encounter with a colleague who had been a clinical preceptor when Diaz was a student at the Harlem Hospital PA program at City University of New York, where she earned a Bachelor of Biomedical Sciences degree.

“I am opening a new clinic in a rural community in Florida, and I need a Spanish-speaking provider. Would you be interested?” Diaz recalled him proposing.

That community was Arcadia, Florida, where the population of a few thousand permanent residents swelled to as many as 40,000 during times of the year when migrant workers, mostly from Mexico, picked oranges in the fields or made cheese at dairies.

Diaz decided to leave the big city for rural Florida, having sensed that it had “sparked something in me that I did not expect.” She would provide quality health care as a PA specializing in family medicine at Arcadia’s Family Care Medical Center from 1994 to 2003. That experience, along with a subsequent practice in southern rural Texas near that state’s border with Mexico, so opened her eyes to the health challenges of rural America that she began thinking of ways to address them in academic settings.

Diaz illuminated some of these ways during a recent edition of a Little-produced podcast called “If Buildings Could Talk,” which introduced the Center for Health Sciences and the role of Pfeiffer’s PA program in it.

“My greatest joy is sharing the stories of what I call the humanity of medicine and bringing that to the classroom,” said Diaz, who also taught classes at Pfeiffer. “I just wanted the opportunity to create what I envisioned: a curriculum that would provide healthcare clinicians who are both exceptional clinicians and advocates for rural communities.”

As Diaz begins to heal among family members in Florida, she takes pride in what she has accomplished at Pfeiffer, knowing that her permanent successor will build on a strong foundation.

Pfeiffer’s current PA students are doing well and are expected to pass their national boards.

“I’m not concerned about any of them,” Diaz said. “They’re all strong students. Their performance has been exceptional.”

Students in the inaugural class of the MS-PAS program have begun completing their first clinical rotations at various healthcare providers near the Center for Health Sciences — and so far, such arrangements are proceeding auspiciously.

Pfeiffer’s first PA students appear keen to practice in rural areas after they graduate. Rachel Nance hails from Norwood, where she has lived for about 15 years. She plans to reside and work in Stanly County after she graduates.

Stanly County is “a place that I will forever come back to because I truly enjoy the people and the community here,” she said. “It’s also a place that has helped raise me and my siblings. I can’t think of a better way to pay it forward than to come back to my home and provide care and education to residents of the community.”

When Diaz hears such sentiments, she feels what she calls “a sense of accomplishment and a deep sense of gratitude.”

“Pfeiffer University is and will always be part of my life story, and I am humbly thankful for joining Emily Prudden in Pfeiffer University’s history.”

She reiterated what she tells all her students: “I have joined you in this journey, and I will walk this journey with you. I will always be there for you.”