From Statecraft to Sea to Sutures

For many PA educators, their careers didn’t unfold on a clear, straight path. Matt Allman, MPAS, PA-C, is no exception — he walked, and sometimes sailed, to where he is today — PA program director at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis.

After graduating with his political science degree from Texas A&M University, Allman began his career as a high school teacher and then as an employee of the U.S. House of Representatives.

After spending several years on Capitol Hill, he decided to pursue his interest in medicine, which he developed while working as a paramedic during his undergraduate years. So Allman went back to school and in 2003, came out of The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas with his PA degree.

Fast forward five years and Allman and his wife Miriam, a nurse practitioner who he’d met while working at a children’s hospital, decided it was time for an adventure. They set their sights on Class Afloat, an international high school that sends students sailing around the world on a tall ship.

In 2008, the Allmans climbed aboard the S/V Concordia, she as the medical officer and he as the shipboard director — there was only need for one health care provider, so Matt served as headmaster and taught philosophy and personal finance.

For the next 10 months they crisscrossed the globe along with 40 students and a handful of other staff members. They logged in excess of 26,000 nautical miles and 13 countries, rode camels in Morocco, spotted whales swimming alongside their vessel, and looked up at towering icebergs as they cruised across the South Atlantic.

2 images -- ship and photo of Matt aboard

The S/V Concordia before it sank; Allman during his year at sea (Photos courtesy Matt Allman)

But it wasn’t all bowlines and photo ops. When sailing from Argentina to South Africa, for instance, the weather became so severe that for several days the students weren’t allowed on deck for fear they’d wash overboard. And Matt never really found his sea legs, relying on medication to cope with constant sea sickness. Miriam fared better. “She attributed this to sleeping in a waterbed while growing up,” he recalled.

Difficulties aside, after their contract ended, Matt was keen to sign up for another year, but Miriam was ready to settle down and start a family. Fortunately, her plan won out; the ship sank just a few months later (all onboard were rescued).

Having divested themselves of all their possessions prior to joining Class Afloat, minus a few boxes of keepsakes stored at a relative’s house, the Allmans were exceptionally mobile. They ended up in Manhattan after Miriam secured a job with a prestigious choir school. Soon after, Matt filled a position in the health services office at the famed Juilliard School.

“Caring for the world’s most talented young performing artists was a real honor,” he said. “I always read the Playbill very closely now when I’m in New York or watching a touring company in Memphis to see if I recognize the names of any of the students that I cared for.”

Allman is featured in a promotional video for Juilliard Health and Counseling Services.

A few years and a couple of kids later, the Allmans were outgrowing life in their 800 sq. ft. apartment in New York City. Matt joined the faculty at UTHSC in 2012, and was finally able to put his love of teaching and PA degree to use at the same time.

He found that drawing on his unique and varied past experiences helped him as an educator. “You bring to the classroom all of the experiences you’ve had over the years, and I think that makes you a better educator,” he said.

He cites an example of talking with his students about health care delivery. “I like to share my experience of working within multiple health care systems, and what I observed sailing to developed and undeveloped countries around the globe.”

When discussing with his students how to treat patients when you have limited resources, Matt often describes a time at sea when an older crew member was experiencing chest pain, and there was no EKG monitor or defibrillator onboard.

“It was about doing a really good history and physical and making due with the resources at hand,” he said. Thankfully, the man faired well and received definitive care at their next port of call.

Matt’s degree in political science hasn’t gone unused either — he’s currently the chair of PAEA’s Government Relations and External Affairs Council.

After settling into life in Tennessee, Matt likely thought the surprising turns in his career were behind him. But less than two years after joining the UTHSC faculty, the program director resigned and he was called to fill the position.

“It was kind of one of those situations I was thrust into,” he said. “It’s been a role that I’ve enjoyed but not actively sought out.”

Matt says his past work experiences have inspired some of his students to look at non-traditional jobs after graduating. But does he recommend breaking the mold?

“I try to instill in them the importance of learning a lot right out of school at their first, second, maybe third traditional job,” Allman said. “Once they have that strong foundation of knowledge, I encourage them to take a look at the unique opportunities that are out there.”

Does Matt see any more adventures in his future?

“I certainly hope so,” he said. “It’s been exciting where my career has taken me thus far…I’m really happy with what I’m doing now, and I look forward to future adventures down the road.”