A third-culture kid at heart, Sam Powdrill, MPHIL, PA-C, associate professor of physician assistant studies at the UK College of Health Sciences, has found himself practicing medicine in locations most people will never set foot in. From the bush of Africa to the mountains of India— and at home in Lexington, Kentucky—he’s leaned into his 30 plus years abroad to educate and inspire the next generation of physician assistants.
“My parents were missionaries and I was raised in India, so I’ve been around developing countries my whole life,” Powdrill said. “I have always wanted to do something with my life that would help others and would have a practical way of sharing Christ’s love with people. That’s what eventually led me to the health care professions.”
Powdrill will admit he took a bit of a roundabout journey to becoming a physician assistant (PA). He initially entered the medical field through the nursing route hoping to become a nurse practitioner. Fast forward a few years and Powdrill, with his family in tow, was crossing continents pursuing health care ministry as a nurse in both India and Honduras.
“While we were in Honduras I was engaged in a lot of medical care. I was basically running a family practice/urgent care on a very rural island community off the coast,” he said. “There was actually no doctor on the island, so I started dealing with all sorts of trauma cases. I learned so much about trauma management during that time.”
After a year in Honduras, Powdrill decided to seek out more education and training. Since he was 31 years old at the time, he felt medical school was out of the question since most institutions did not accept candidates older than 30.
“I met an ophthalmologist while working abroad, and he directed me to a program in London that was run by four ophthalmologists who had spent time working in the developing world,” Powdrill said. “They told me they could help me gain experience so I could begin this program. So that’s what I did. I moved my family to England and started in eye care which was the last thing I ever thought I would be doing.”
After completing the program, Powdrill packed up his life again and moved to Africa where he spent 13 years serving as the coordinator for the Eye Unit at Tenwek Hospital—one of the most well-known mission teaching hospitals in Bomet, Kenya. He and his wife played an integral role in the establishment and expansion of the hospital’s Eye Unit.
At Tenwek, Powdrill’s main focus was developing low cost eye care services and eye surgery delivery to their largely unserved rural community. Today, Tenwek Eye Unit is the major eye care facility for about one million people, providing inpatient and outpatient eye care services; eye surgery; training programs for volunteer eye health care workers, residents, and clinical officers in ophthalmology; and mobile eye care outreach.
“While in Kenya, the surgeons and ophthalmologists trained me in eye surgery,” Powdrill said. “So, I was actually a nurse doing eye surgery. I had a long discussion with the Kenyan government about getting the credentials needed to continue doing this type of work. They said, ‘Go get your PA and then come back so we can put you on our eye surgical course.”’
Powdrill attained his PA degree in North Dakota and then returned to Kenya working at Tenwek Hospital until he moved back to the United States in 2004. After meeting another College of Health Sciences faculty member at a conference (Dr. David Fahringer), he was encouraged to apply for a teaching position with the college.
Powdrill has now taught at the College of Health Sciences for 15 years. His friendly and gracious demeanor, decades of wisdom and experience, and passion to see his students succeed have made him a favorite in the Wethington building and across campus.
“I’m a clinician at heart and I love the hands-on skills that I teach. I’ve taught the physical exam for years now including things like suturing, IV’s, etc.,” he said. “Those moments when everything clicks and a student just gets it are what makes my day as an educator. To see my students hone their practical skills, do them well, and be accurate, that’s the best part of my job.”
In addition to teaching, Powdrill leads several education abroad opportunities each year. From Ecuador, to Kenya, and beyond, he is dedicated to helping students gain cross-cultural skills and take initiative as practitioners.
When asked about his favorite memories on these trips, Powdrill smiles and responds there’s almost too many to count. But, there are a few standouts such as the time he led students on a medical mission trip in Samburu, Kenya—a desert area that is both rural and poverty-stricken.
“We were in a small town to do eye surgery and my students really rolled up their sleeves and tackled the challenges at hand,” he said. “It was hot, it was dusty, and we did around fifty eye procedures in a church with no windows. Our IV bag was hanging from rafters in the ceiling. My students learned how to scrub, use the equipment, and assisted me with vigorous enthusiasm despite the conditions.”
Powdrill is slated to retire from the UK College of Health Sciences in January after 15 years of selfless and dedicated service in academia. He’s excited to pursue another calling in his life upon his retirement: developing a new lightweight microscope for travel practitioners and repurposing microscopes for use in medical settings that do not have access to cutting-edge technologies.
“I still want to keep doing my work, but as you get older, you wonder how long you can keep your hands steady enough to work in a 2mm space under the cornea,” he said. “I want to keep operating as long as I can, and I want to help others who spend extended periods of time abroad. After spending 13 years working in the African bush and performing surgery, I realized there was a real need for better microscopes.”
Powdrill and a colleague in Michigan have since worked on a lightweight microscope that meets the 50 pound weight limit for plane baggage. In comparison, most operating microscopes weigh between 300-500 pounds. He has also developed a microscope that runs off of a 15-hour battery—ideal for medical environments where electricity is unreliable.
“This is how I want to operate. I want to come along side and equip others so they can be self-sufficient,” he said. “If I can repair an existing microscope or offer a solution that allows someone in another country to do the job then that’s more important than me coming in and doing the job for them.”