Pioneering Monetfiore residency programs celebrates 40 years

Bronx Times
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The job of surgical physician assistant developed on the front lines of the Vietnam War, but its training methods were perfected at Montefiore Medical Center.

Montefiore become home to the country’s first Surgical Assistant residency program in 1971, and is now one of about 40 throughout the country. The program celebrated its 40th anniversary at a ceremony on Monday, October 31 at Montefiore’s Cherkasky Auditorium.

The first, unofficial, surgical physician assistants were medics and corpsmen who worked closely with military physicians in treating wounded soldiers during battle. Today, surgical PAs are trained doctors who work closely with surgeons throughout all stages of the surgery process. They deal with patients in pre-op, post-op and work in operating rooms during surgery. They conduct physicals, evaluate patients’ medical histories and conduct procedures such as inserting chest tubes and closing incisions.

Dr. Robert Sammartano, RPA-C is program director of Montefiore’s surgical PA residency program. He was first exposed to the profession just after graduating Fordham University in early 1970s, when he was a researcher at Montefiore worked closely with the first surgical PA residents.

“When it first started, the doctors saw this as an offshoot of medics in the military who were treating people in high-pressure situations,” said Sammartano, who grew up on the intersection of Allerton and Wallace avenues. “When you consider that surgery, as a whole, can be stressful, they figured some mid-level professional could be trained to help.”

Duke University opened the first surgical PA program for undergraduates. Montefiore’s was the first postgraduate residency program.

It was initially a four-year program, and residents routinely worked 100-hour weeks. Now, it takes just 14 and a half months, and there are restrictions on how many hours residents can work.

Dr. Sammartano can accept up to 15 new residents each year, but this year’s graduating class has only seven. There are 375 alums from Montefiore’s program around the world.

Dr. Sammartano, who is also the president of the American Association of Surgical Physician Assistants, did his residency up I-95 at Yale but has overseen Montefiore’s program since 2003.

He said that, as with anything, residents become more at ease in the job as they gain experience.

“At the beginning of that learning curve you’re afraid more of hurting anyone than not knowing anything. Over time you’re more and more comfortable in what you do.”

Bill Weisbrod can be reached via e-mail at or by phone at (718) 742-3394. Follow him on Twitter @bweisbrod
Posted 12:00 am, November 19, 2011
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