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Patients pack Blairsville practice for retirement of veteran nurse practitioner

| Friday, Aug. 1, 2014, 1:33 p.m.

Patients were lined up to see Carolyn Palaika July 23 at the Excela Blairsville Family Practice office.

But it was a celebratory occasion rather than health concerns that prompted the turnout as more than 150 attended a meet-and-greet event marking the veteran nurse practitioner's retirement.

When Palaika finished her training at Pittsburgh's Allegheny General Hospital and joined with Dr. John Santarlas to open up their Blairsville medical office in 1978, disco and polyester leisure suits reigned supreme, a gallon of gas averaged 65 cents, and women were almost non-existent in positions of leadership in the medical field.

“A lot has changed in medicine,” said Palaika. “Computers and electronic medical records, advancements in treatments and procedures, and many other elements. But, the one thing that never changed here was our team approach, our belief in continuing our medical education, and our dedication to provide the best care possible to our patients.”

“These people are like family to me,” Palaika said in a lobby jammed full of people standing in line to shake her hand and wish her well in her retirement.

Also in the receiving line was Palaika's replacement, physician's assistant Mindy Fowler.

“She's leaving big shoes to fill, and I'm not even trying to take her place,” Fowler said of Palaika. “I have a role, and the people here at the office have been making my transition very easy for me. I'm comfortable here, and I'm getting used to things. But, Carolyn will definitely be missed.” Lisa Bertolino, a registered nurse at the Blairsville office, agreed: “She is one of the most kind, caring, and compassionate providers that I've ever worked with. What always came across every day is that she loved her job.”

Pennsylvania's State Board of Nursing Regulations defines a certified registered nurse practitioner as “a professional nurse licensed in Pennsylvania who is certified by the board in a specialty and who, while functioning in the expanded role as a professional nurse, performs acts of medical diagnosis or prescription of medical, therapeutic, or corrective measures in collaboration with a physician licensed to practice in Pennsylvania.”

Today, there are close to 10,000 CRNPs in Pennsylvania; about half of those, like Palaika, have prescriptive privileges. In order to be certified, an applicant must first hold a RN license. Then, the applicant must complete an “accredited, board-approved master's or post-master's nurse practitioner program or other board-approved program that awarded an advanced degree” or an equivalent course of study.

Patricia Evanko of Blairsville, an Indiana County commissioner and longtime patient, said Palaika's wealth of knowledge and professional approach matched any doctor's that she has ever visited. “Maybe if she were starting out today, she'd go on to be a doctor, but, remember, she came up at a time in the profession when it wasn't as open to women as it is today,” Evanko said.

After 50 years in the field, Palaika said she still practiced in the “old school” tradition of being accessible, down-to-earth, and practical in her approach: “This was the best job of my life, and the community has been unbelievable. Sure, there are long hours, but no two days have ever been alike. It has always been interesting and challenging.”

Palaika said she's followed the golden rule: “Treat people the way that you want to be treated.”

In addition, she said, “It is very important to be a good listener and a good thinker because it is about taking care of the total patient. Ultimately, our job is about saving and changing lives.”

Kathy McAnulty of Homer City can attest to that. She said that Palaika “literally saved my life. Before there was an awareness for screenings and doctors were telling patients to get colonoscopies, Carolyn told me to go get one. I never did. Finally, she convinced me to go get a routine colonoscopy, and they found polyps that were potentially life-threatening. I had surgery, and I'm here today because she was so conscientious and caring.

“She's a fantastic person, and I love her and respect her as a health care professional.”

Like Evanko and some of her other patients, McAnulty put in calls to Palaika on her off hours. “Like those doctors on those old TV shows, she's always been there for me,” McAnulty said.

“To Carolyn, it was more than a nine-to-five job,” Evanko said. “It was a 24/7 mission. She was always there for you if you needed her. It wasn't about getting paid, or acclamations, or being in the limelight; she was there to do the work for the people.”

Evanko's husband, Ron, who is Blairsville's mayor, presented Palaika with a proclamation honoring her service to the community for more than 36 years.

At the ceremonial send-off, he said, “She was the first female role model of her kind here at Blairsville. She was a leader who young girls found was easy to talk to. In a time when women in medicine was a rarity, young women could look up to her and emulate.”

With humility, Palaika downplays this type of talk. “I just love what I do,” she said, “and the patients know it.”

At 71, Palaika is looking forward to the next phase of her life: “I love to travel, so I plan to do a lot of that. I'm an avid bird watcher, so I will have time for that and my other hobbies, like visiting botanical gardens, going to the symphony and spending time in museums.”

Her last day on the job was July 31. After that, her tickets are stamped for London and the British Isles.

“I've been retiring for the last six years,” she said with a laugh. “I would say it every year, but now it feels like the right time.”

Spencer Sadler is a freelance writer.

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