Shannon Cornwell, PA-C

Abdominal pain, chest pain, lacerations, dislocated joints, drug abuse… These are all typical cases seen in the St. Jude Medical Center emergency room in Orange County, California. What’s not so typical is how Shannon Cornwell, PA-C, treats these patients. For the 25-30 patients she sees every day, it’s not simply admit, assess and treat. It’s about making an impact in their lives.

When a young man was admitted to the ER having a psychotic break, Cornwell spent time by his bedside talking with him, even though he was essentially unresponsive. A year later he came in to visit a relative, and he thanked her. “He told me, ‘You talked to me like I was a person and didn’t dismiss me like I was crazy,’” remembered Cornwell. She says this is always a reminder to her to be compassionate and treat patients like people - something that sounds simple but can be difficult to do in the fast-paced environment of emergency medicine.

“They’re not just cases, and they’re not just broken bones,” says Cornwell. “You can interpret labs and give them medication, but if you lack the component of human compassion, you’re missing an important part of the process.”

Cornwell takes time to get to know her patients and learn their personal stories. “I’ll try and relate to them,” she says. “If they’re going through something, I’ll share a similar experience that may help them feel better. It makes them more comfortable.”

According to Cornwell, this can aid tremendously to their recovery. “To me, it’s not about having a provider-patient relationship, but more of a personal relationship and letting the patients know they’re not alone.”

Coworkers recognize Cornwell’s personal approach to patient care. “Shannon has encountered several patients who have limited resources and no local family to help them, and she’s taken it upon herself to help them out,” says Megan Maddock, PA-C. “She’ll take them to doctor appointments, ensure they have food, sign them up for programs for extra assistance and check up on them for general health.”

One of the most memorable patient experiences for Cornwell was a woman who came in to the ER with a needle stuck in her arm from doing drugs. After extracting the needle, Cornwell talked to her about recovery options and even exchanged phone numbers so she could check in with her every now and then. “She would go through some bad times where she disappeared for a bit and didn’t respond to my texts, and then she’d come back,” said Cornwell. “After about a year, she was clean – she is such a strong person. To this day, we keep in touch, and it’s wonderful to see her in such a good place in life.”

Another patient has become an important part of her and her family’s lives. Cornwell chuckled as she recalled treating a “cranky and feisty old man” when he came in for a broken hip. After being discharged from the hospital, he was admitted to an inpatient rehab facility. She visited him there and drove him home once he was ready to leave. “I found out he was living in a hoarding situation, so my family and I cleaned his house for him.” He is now a big part of her family’s lives. They bring him groceries, cook him meals, and make sure to spend time with him at Christmas. “My kids always ask me when we can see him next.”

In her 14 years of practice, Cornwell has treated and helped many other patients. Working in the ER, she meets her patients at difficult, stressful times in their lives, and she does anything she can to make their lives a little better. “Sometimes there’s an immediate fix, but other times there’s not,” says Cornwell. “Yet every day there’s an opportunity to learn something about myself, my patients and medicine.”

“Shannon is everything I could wish for in a head PA,” says Kristine Koh, MD, FACEP. “She is hard-working, reliable, loyal, fair, sincere, responsive, dedicated, respected, and trustworthy, not to mention also being an outstanding clinical emergency department PA. We are blessed to have her working with us as she contributes immensely to our success as a team.”

Maddock adds, “She is making a difference in each individual's life through loving, supportive care. Her heart is bigger, lighter and warmer than anyone I've ever known, and her patients end up with a better quality of life.”

Cornwell says she feels fortunate to work at a hospital that supports a personalized approach to patient care. “St. Jude Medical Center is not only nationally recognized for excellence, but is also patient-centered and fosters an environment that allows employees to have that ‘sacred encounter.’ What is this life if we can’t continue to serve people in that way?”