The glamour of competing in beauty pageants might not feel compatible with the reality of working with underserved populations in one of the most economically challenging areas in the region, but for Physician Assistant Riley Slate, it’s a perfect fit. The advanced practitioner, who is part of the hospitalist team at St. Luke’s Allentown Campus and current Miss Lehigh Valley, finds both meaning and reward in the dueling arenas and has been able to carve a unique path for herself over the course of the past two and half years.
A self-described empath, Slate said that the desire to help people and “fix” problems was a driver throughout her life, and has guided her toward a career in medicine that is proving to be exceptionally rewarding on a personal and professional level. And St. Luke’s, she said, is the ideal platform for that work.
Originally from Delaware, Slate came to the Lehigh Valley to earn her Bachelor of Science in Medical Studies and her Masters of Science in Physician Assistant studies at DeSales University. While there, Slate said she was first exposed to St. Luke’s through rotations. “I got to really know and love the culture,” she said. “I knew that when it was time to apply for a position, this is where I wanted to be. The culture breeds a sense of tolerance and of caring for your patients in a non-judgmental way, without any bias or prejudice.”
While at DeSales, Slate volunteered at local community centers and began working with free health clinics sponsored by the university. The Allentown Rescue Mission, in particular, “offered a great opportunity” to better understand the medical and social/economic issues faced by many of the individuals served there.
“I know it’s very easy to draw assumptions about people,” she said. “And I have to admit, I had some of those assumptions as well. But when you sit down with these people and hear their stories and how they got to where they are, it makes all the sense in the world. I’ve found that just taking the time to listen to them was one of the best things I could do to really understand and appreciate them as individuals. And I’ve been able to apply that in my work with patients at St. Luke’s.”
As a beauty pageant contestant for the past four years, Slate is affiliated with the Miss America organization, and represents a cohort of young women who are focused more on education and community service than swimsuit competitions and theatrical performances. In fact, Slate says, she was originally compelled to enter her first competition of Miss Greenville, Delaware (which she won) to earn scholarship funds.
“These days, the focus is really more on social impact than anything else,” said Slate, who went on to compete in both Miss Delaware and Miss Pennsylvania pageants over the past four years. This past June, the Miss Lehigh Valley winner earned third runner up status in the Miss Pennsylvania competition and was the recipient of the Community Service Award. “I’m really proud of that,” she says of the award, “and of the work I’ve been able to do here.”
The challenges of Covid
Entering the medical field immediately after graduating, Slate found herself jumping into the Covid-19 pandemic at a time of turmoil and uncertainty. Vaccines were not yet widely available, effective treatments still on the horizon and the death toll continued to rise.
“I’m not sure there is ever a ‘good time’ to enter the medical field, but it was particularly scary then,” said Slate. “Starting out was like diving in head first and I did struggle a bit at the beginning. There was all this uncertainly about Covid itself – which was really terrifying – and it was so difficult for the families of patients when they couldn’t be with them or even see them. As a new grad, you have all this knowledge in your head and you just want to help people. When I would go home at night, it was hard to put all that aside.”
She was aided, she said, by counseling, which helped her develop the capacity to deal with the stress of the job in a healthier way. “I learned it’s okay to be upset when you’re speaking with someone with a cancer diagnosis, or to a family member of someone who has passed away. I allow myself to feel that and then move on, and to feel gratitude and appreciation for every day I have on this earth.”
Slate said she also found strong support from colleagues, such as Dr. Colleen Cahill, a hospitalist at the St. Luke’s Allentown campus, and Jaqui Howells, a St. Luke’s Sacred Heart campus parish nurse, who integrates faith and healing into her health and wellness work.
In addition to enjoying a nurturing and inspiring work environment, Slate said that the rewards of the job are plentiful, and sometimes present themselves in surprising ways.
Slate shared the story of one patient, who had overdosed on drugs, was revived with Narcan, and used that second chance to “completely do a 180,” she said. Slate saw him recently while helping out at a Laundry on Linden event, which provides free laundry services to low- and no-income individuals. She and other St. Luke’s employees also provide free medical care out of the hospital network’s mobile medical van. “Now he’s one of the people who is there to help others who were in his situation,” she said. “It’s so inspiring to see that happen. It was really one of those ‘wow’ moments that make it all worthwhile.”
It is circumstances like that that are helping her to shape her future plans, which she hopes will involve a role focused on women’s health. “A huge passion of mine is educating both my patients and the public on topics that are typically seen as taboo or controversial, and I think that working in women's health would give me the opportunity to address these topics head on,” she said.
Her over-arching goal “is to be this bright light to patients, to try and be as upbeat and happy as much as possible” – even in the most trying of circumstances. “I know that sometimes we are seeing these patients at their worst, dealing with all kinds of serious issues. But I want to show them that there are people who really care, and that there is good in this world.”