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Michael Wells, PA-C, MPH

Finding the Heartbeat in Medicine

Michael Wells, PA-C, MPH, followed a love of science and math into a cardiac medical career encompassing the operating room, education, and mentorship.

Written by Rachel Sauer on February 21, 2023

The career turning point for Michael Wells, PA-C, MPH, came during heart surgery in an operating room at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

He’d already completed his physician assistant (PA) and master of public health studies and had taken the uncommon step of a surgical residency – only a very small handful of cardiothoracic surgery programs in the United States offer PA residency programs, so admission is extremely competitive.

During his residency, he not only learned to be a surgical PA, but also learned the skills of endoscopic vein harvesting, drawing on his focus, determination, and dedication to achieve his goals.

Wells has carried that training and education into the 10 years he’s been with the CU School of Medicine as a senior instructor in cardiothoracic surgery. In his clinical work as chief physician assistant (PA) for cardiac surgery at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, he reinitiated and has significantly grown the endoscopic vein harvesting program and partnered with the medical group Terumo Cardiovascular to teach, train, and provide lectures to new providers in the technique of endoscopic vein and radial artery harvesting. This has grown into a program of teaching providers across the country as well as internationally.

Seeing science in everyday life

Wells knew from an early age that he wanted to pursue a career in medicine. Growing up in Aurora, he always excelled in math and science and studied biology at the University of Colorado Denver. While a full-time student, he also worked full-time as an EMT, an experience that helped give him focus and the ability to see how he could apply what he was learning in class to real-life scenarios in medicine.

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Michael Wells, PA-C, MPH, working as an EMT (left) and in the operating room performing endoscopic vein harvesting (right).

Wells decided to pursue post-graduate training and education in public health and as a PA, again drawing on his experience as an EMT to cultivate confidence in his autonomous decision making as well as his ability to build relationships of trust with patients.

As part of earning his master of public health degree, he studied in Ethiopia and completed research surveying patients’ perceptions of having malaria. While the malaria component of his research is not widely applicable in Aurora, he says, the skills of assessing patient decision making and priorities are.

During his PA training, he shadowed surgeons and grew increasingly interested in cardiac surgery, particularly in endoscopic vein harvesting. In this minimally invasive procedure, the greater saphenous vein in the leg, one of the most commonly used veins in coronary artery bypass graft surgery, is harvested via a small incision and tunnel under the skin.

When Wells arrived at CU and the cardiac surgery program, he was instrumental in rebuilding the endoscopic vein harvesting program, which had become dormant. Now, as chief PA on a team of six PAs, Wells and his colleagues all perform the harvesting procedure.

“This is a procedure specifically performed by a PA, and to have that type of autonomy to be able to go into the OR and do this kind of work is something I was really excited to get into,” he says. Through his partnership with Terumo Cardiovascular, he has become a noted expert in training PAs to perform the procedure.

Benefitting the patient

As he continues growing his career, Wells is increasingly committed to supporting and mentoring students who are interested in pursuing a medical career, or even those who simply like science but may not know all the paths they could pursue within it. This support and mentorship can be especially valuable for those from underrepresented communities.

“One of the key things with PA school is shadowing. Anyone who’s interested in pursuing the medical field, I want to make sure I’m available if they want to shadow me and just learn more about being in medicine in general,” Wells says. “It’s important to show that people from every background have opportunities to succeed in this field.”

He adds that working with patients as an African-American man, especially patients of color who may not have much or any prior experience with clinicians in whom they can see themselves, is vital to growing representation in medicine.

“I’m able to relate to a lot of families who come from different backgrounds and may not always have a lot of trust in the medical system in general,” Wells says. “One of the things about being a PA is I’ve always been able to be a bridge – I can talk through things with the surgeon and then also work through them with patients, and I think that has real benefit. It’s a reminder that regardless of our backgrounds, we’re all working for the good of the patient.”