It is a rare gift when someone is able to leave a town they love for an education and then get to return to that town to work at their career. This is the case with the newest member of the Libby Clinic team.
Robert O’Rourke is a physician assistant at the clinic and is happy to be back in the town he has loved since he was a boy.
Born in Kalispell and raised in Puget Sound, O’Rourke could be considered a long way from home. But he said his grandparents worked out of Libby, and as a boy he would come to Libby every summer.
After graduating high school, O’Rourke said he moved back to Libby permanently. O’Rourke knew he wanted to be in the medical field since volunteering for the ambulance service in 1993 while working at the lumber mill.
“That’s kind of where I really realized I wanted to pursue something in medical,” said O’Rourke. “I just enjoyed volunteering with the ambulance. I knew medical is what I wanted to be in, but I didn’t know what.”
He began his paid medical career as a respiratory therapist. O’Rourke said his wife, Els, told him about the respiratory therapy program so he decided to take the plunge and go back to school.
He said as a student for respiratory therapy, he was working doing pulmonary function tests for the Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry when they were brought to Libby to screen for the effects of the asbestos. He said the agency hired him to do the pulmonary functions for the initial screenings for asbestos exposure.
“When the positive results due to the asbestos exposure started to come back (to Libby), I was hired by the hospital full-time to work on those studies,” said O’Rourke. “When I graduated, I just became a full staff member as a respiratory therapist.”
O’Rourke said he worked as an respiratory therapist until 2015 when, he decided to return to school to become a physician assistant.
That path would prove to be way tougher than his respiratory therapist training. The degree required an undergraduate degree before being able to continue on to get the specific physician assistant training.
After graduating from Independence University in 2016 with an undergraduate degree, he immediately enrolled in Bay Path University for a graduate degree as a physician assistant.
“I graduated from Bay Path in May of 2018 and took my board’s that same month,” said O’Rourke. “I received my license in August of that same year.”
O’Rourke said the training for becoming a physician assistant is based on the medical model, but it is, essentially, a master’s degree.
He went on to say one would have to have their undergraduate degree and after that, there is two years of training specific to physician assistants.
After doing classroom training, he had to do rotations. He did his in family medicine at Libby Clinic, where he currently works.
O’Rourke explained family medicine and how it focuses on pediatrics, women’s health, surgery, hospitalist and ambulatory.
“It was really nice to be able to come back to Libby to do all my rotations,” said O’Rourke. “That was one of the things about this school is that they allowed me to do that.”
During all of this time, O’Rourke balanced student life and his career as a medical professional with being a husband and a father.
He said he met his wife, Els, at a hospital function in Libby on New Year’s Eve in the late 1990s. Els was a travelling physical therapist from Holland and was in Libby as one of her stops.
They soon married and have a daughter and a son, 15 years old and 16 years old respectively. He said one of the hardest things he has ever done was to leave his family for long intervals of time to achieve his goal of being a physician assistant.
“They saw that I put in a lot of hours,” said O’Rourke. “But if you’re going to do it, you just have to do it. You have to be serious about it.”
O’Rourke said it is fun watching his son and how he is developing educationally. He is already starting to take college classes, he said.
His son does not know what he wants to do yet, but the biggest thing is that he is serious about school, O’Rourke said. He is proud of both of his children and is happy to be raising them in the place he has always considered home. Not only that but he is happy to be helping the people he was raised around and has come to know so well.
“This where I wanted to come back to,” said O’Rourke. “This is the community I wanted to serve.”