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Published December 10, 2020
When Dr. Tabitha Thrasher was still in high school, she worked in a skilled nursing home in northwestern Missouri where she grew up, assigned to the janitorial and maintenance crew scrubbing baseboards, mopping floors and emptying trash cans. Thrasher also managed to stay longer in the elderly patients’ rooms, patiently listening to their life stories.
Thrasher, a University of Wyoming clinical associate professor at the Family Medicine Residency Program in Casper, never thought about going into the medical field until her father died in 2003 from lung cancer.
“I did not consider medicine as a career, thinking it was not even a possibility for me with my background,” Thrasher says. She says many people in her community lived below the poverty line, including her family of six.
“When my father passed away, at that point on, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was supposed to be in medicine,” Thrasher adds. And it was those experiences that led Thrasher to specialize in care for the elderly.
Thrasher recently became UW’s first graduate of the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education Geriatric Fellowship program, successfully passing her geriatric board exam this fall. As a certified geriatrician, Thrasher is now the director for UW’s Geriatric Fellowship Program.
In Wyoming, where there are now just three board-certified geriatricians, Thrasher is the first UW-produced geriatrician, says Dr. Beth Robitaille, a physician and the director of UW’s Graduate Medical Education program.
Geriatricians are physicians who specialize in the care of older adults, especially those affected by conditions such as dementia, osteoporosis and frailty.
“Training is specific to navigating complex care of older adults with many chronic conditions and also in the social aspects of this population,” Thrasher says. “Care is focused on improving quality of life for patients and working with patients toward their goals for health, and also for end-of-life care.”
The program’s curriculum -- outlined by the national accrediting organization -- includes specific clinical educational experiences in aspects of medicine that are particularly important to caring for the elderly, such as wound care, neurology, geriatric psychiatry, hospice and palliative medicine, Robitaille says. The fellow also is required to care for geriatric patients in all health care settings: clinic, hospital, nursing home, assisted living, hospice and home visits.
“After a couple of years of not being able to recruit fellows into the traditional format of a full-time, 12-month fellowship, we successfully received approval for a part-time, 24-month curriculum,” Robitaille says.
Thrasher worked half-time as a faculty member at the Family Medicine Residency Program in Casper -- when she returned to the state in 2018 -- and began her fellowship, working in the fellowship program half-time. She worked with specialists, including cardiology, neurology, orthopedics, rehabilitation specialists, palliative care, hospice, wound care and geriatricians.
Thrasher began her college career majoring in tourism management at the University of Central Missouri and, after graduation, she took pre-medicine classes at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, joining the inaugural class of Rocky Vista Medical College of Osteopathic Medicine. After medical school, she moved to Casper, where she completed her residency with UW’s Family Practice Residency Program.
During all of her rotations during her third and fourth years of medical training, she kept gravitating toward rotations in geriatrics or primary care that covered skilled nursing facility patients. After her residency, she moved to Oregon to a retirement community knowing that she wanted to work with older adults.
“I soon realized that there was a gap in care for older adults, and my path took me back to being a teacher of primary care to spread the educational experiences of eldercare,” she says. “I worked in outpatient primary care, with a focus on Medicare patients.”
An opportunity opened for her to teach at the Casper Family Medicine Residency Program two years ago, where she completed the fellowship in geriatrics.
“I am honored and proud to be the first graduate from the University of Wyoming Geriatric Fellowship,” Thrasher says. “I hope to give back to the state by continuing my career here, working with other team members for curriculum building, scheduling and training other geriatric fellows.”
Robitaille says Thrasher is “deeply committed” to geriatric medicine and has worked hard, putting in extra hours in completing the fellowship while also being a core faculty member.
“She was flexible and willing to explore geriatric educational opportunities across the state and region,” Robitaille adds.
Thrasher says that she “would not be where I am today” without the support of Robitaille; Cindy Works, a UW clinical associate professor; Professor Christine McKibbin; and clinical Associate Professor Catherine Carrico in UW’s Wyoming Center on Aging, whom she credits for being an integral part of her education.
“They are extremely supportive and always looking for ways to assist with the goal of furthering geriatric education in Wyoming,” Thrasher says. “Without the support of the faculty at the University of Wyoming Family Medicine Residency Program, I would not have been able to balance being an attending and a geriatric fellow. I am so lucky to have them all as colleagues, mentors and friends.”