Taking his place

As one who has spent his life in service to others, retired PA-C Jim Hill is an accommodating sort of man. That quality likely saved his life on September 23 of 1972. Stationed overseas in Norway for a NATO mission shadowed by the Russians, then-Senior 1st Lieutenant Hill was supposed to be one of five Marines on a mission to resupply fellow soldiers. An hour before that mission, Captain Raymond Wilhelm Reisner, Jr., of Alaska, asked to take his place on the helicopter so that Reisner could get some photos of the battlefield. Hill gave up his seat.

The helicopter crashed into the side of a mountain, killing all five Marines on board. Married, Captain Reisner had two daughters near the same age as Hill’s daughter, Stephanie.

“Captain Reisner died, which meant that I lived,” Hill said. “Since that time, I have valued every day of my life, every day with my wife, Nancy, daughter Stephanie, and every day of my eventual career as a PA. That experience changed how I viewed, how I lived, my life. I think of him all the time – Captain Reisner’s death meant that I’ve had more than 45 extra years with Nancy and Stephanie, four terrific grandchildren, and 42 years as a PA.”

Hill was a Marine Corps officer from 1970-1978, with the first four years on active duty, and the last four years in a Marine Corps Reserve Unit. A logistics officer with an infantry battalion (3rd Battalion, 8th Marines), he was a platoon commander in H&S Company with 3/8 when he served in Norway on Operation Strong Express. After his life-changing experience in 1972, he became the officer in charge of the Supported Activities Supply System (SASSY) that brought computer supply systems into the Marines, and as such, he trained Marines at every single U.S. Marine Corps base in the world.

Captain Hill had joined the Marine Corps after graduating from college, but had long dreamt of a medical career. In 1965, Duke University started a Physician Assistant program with the intention of training military veterans who had experience responding to trauma. Hill graduated from Duke’s program in 1976.

“When I first started as a PA, medicine was a lot like the Wild West,” said Hill. “I worked in a Level 2 Trauma Center and was given responsibility just like the residents (it was a teaching hospital). X-rays, for example, were still plastic sheets and were viewed on a box lit by fluorescent light bulbs. There was no enlarging any areas or darkening / lightening them for better viewing. A radiologist reading was only had immediately by walking the x-ray to their department upstairs from the ER; otherwise, we read our own films. Since CT scans weren’t even developed until 1972, head injuries were evaluated by plain view skull x-rays and a physical exam. Appendicitis was determined by the history, physical findings, some lab (maybe an elevated white blood cell count) AND your best impression.”

These skills – as well as taking a careful history, thoughtful physical exam, and considering all possible options – helped Hill become a thorough and talented PA who was sought out for his abilities.

“When I worked in the ER at CMC-University here in Charlotte, the nurses nicknamed me ‘House’ (from the TV show) since I was able to make a more likely diagnosis out of difficult, complicated presentations because of my past experiences,” Hill said. “They told me they would find me to see these kinds of patients when they presented to the ER.”

Hill has served in North Carolina his entire career through a progression of the same group. Before his retirement, he served as the Regional Director of APPs for the 13-hospital group in North Carolina.

“I consider USACS to be the finest emergency medicine company in the country,” Hill said. “No other group in the country treats their APPs with more respect or gives them more responsibility and involvement with the company as does USACS. I am very proud to have been associated with USACS.”

Much like the field of emergency medicine, the profession of a physician assistant has grown significantly in respect and size in the past several decades. A pioneer in the profession, Hill was part of a group who served on the state academy of PAs that advocated against efforts to halt PA advancement. Hill also served the military as a PA in the North Carolina Air National Guard. He was on Air Force active duty for four months for Operation Desert Storm in 1991, where he served with the 10th Aeromedical Staging Facility, treating injured, sick, and wounded military personnel before they flew home.

Last year, Duke selected Hill as the 2019 Alumnus of the Year and inducted him into the Duke PA Hall of Fame. At 71, he became the lead mentor for the Duke PA Program Veterans Mentoring Project, where he works to recruit veterans to connect them with older veteran PAs to mentor them throughout the two year program. He also volunteers at the Charlotte Rescue Mission, where he works with veterans who have become addicted to substances and are working to get their lives back together.

At 71, Hill walks at least 24 miles per week with fellow retired veterans. He’s been married to Nancy for more than 51 years now. And he continues to take not a single day of life – a life that could have ended on September 23, 1972 – for granted.

Hill will be speaking to APPs at the USACS Assembly on Thursday, Feb. 27, at 2:00 p.m.