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UNCP Heroes: Dr. Andrea Simmons

Dr. Andrea SImmons

Each week, UNCP will honor one of our alumni on the front lines in health care, public service and other key professions leading the way in our nation's response to COVID-19. Below is a submission about this week's hero, Dr. Andrea Simmons '00.

Andrea Simmons, MD, Board Certified Family Medicine

I am married to Ashley Blackburn and have two amazing children Alannah Rose Simmons, 11, and Ethan Tyler Simmons, 7. As a life-long resident of Robeson County, I attended Purnell Swett High School and graduated in the class of 1996. I attended UNC Pembroke and earned a bachelor’s degree in Biology and Chemistry with a Biomedical emphasis. During college my extracurricular activities included HCAP which was instrumental in my success in seeking a career in medicine and was a member of the cheerleading squad, serving as captain during my junior year. Go Braves!

The decision to attend UNCP was one of the best decisions I could have made. My parents were very quick to say I had to do my first two years at UNCP and get my foundation before I could apply to an out of area college and I am thankful for the experience. UNCP offered an intimate setting, personable instructors and small classrooms. After graduating from UNCP, I became a certified EMT and worked with Raeford EMS while I pursued being accepted into medical school. The one-year experience allowed me to recharge and prepare mentally and emotionally for the career I would soon have. In 2000, I was accepted into the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University. During my four years at ECU, I developed a love for family medicine. I proudly graduated from medical school with honors and was accepted to the Mcleod Family Medicine Residency. Having the opportunity to work in a neighboring state, I learned how to take care of complex patients within a rural setting. Residency prepared me to return back to my home in Robeson County equipped with the skillset to take care of even the most complex of cases.

My journey through the past 12 years has come with many opportunities. I worked with my father’s privately-owned Robeson Family Practice for two years then joined Southeastern Health for a period of five years. While continuing to develop the family physician model, learning to balance motherhood, and being a full-time physician, I made the decision to take a leap of faith and become self-employed. My sister, Dr. Charlene Locklear, and I opened a private practice in 2016, TruCare Family Practice. In addition to private practice, I provide medical consultation and serve as co-medical director for Community Hospice.

Being afforded the opportunity to watch and observe my father as a child, I would describe my personal style as not being the average family physician. I was able to see firsthand what it meant to be the ultimate family doctor and do everything. To the best of my ability, I provide emotional, physical and mental support to my patients. This experience and opportunity have been rewarding and I have loved taking care of my patients and community.

The COVID-19 pandemic is incredibly challenging and scary at the same time. We are dealing with a virus that we don’t know a lot about and data is being made available daily. As a medical professional, I have been taught to practice evidence-based medicine and now we are dealing with a pandemic that has no evidence, and protocols are changing constantly. To illustrate the difficulties faced by physicians and medical personnel, I will share my personal experience as a healthcare provider on the front lines. 

Our county and region have seen a significant increase of positive COVID-19 cases that required me to changed my work attire to PPE. As a precautionary measure in the event that I may have to swab a patient for COVID-19 testing, I wear scrubs to work daily which is easier to clean at home and not contaminate regular working clothes. I have not worn scrubs in more than 12 years. I now review the daily caseload and determine which patients need to be seen in-person, who can do a telehealth or phone call visit, and reschedule others for a future appointment. Many older adults do not have access to the internet or understand technology features such as facetime or telehealth. There are patients that insist on in-person office visits which requires office personnel to implement additional protective guidelines and extremely strict safety measures. Face masks are now required of all staff when seeing patients and to the extent possible, remain 6 feet in distance. My patients are my family and I usually greet them with a hug. As social-distancing has challenged us to rethink physical contact, virtual hugs have become part of my patient routine. For some of my patients, the only social interaction they have is visiting TruCare Family Practice, so this has been a drastic change for them and me. I have a genuine fear for the safety of my staff as every patient has the potential of being asymptomatic which is undetected by the naked eye. When a patient contacts TruCare Family Practice and there is the concern of potential exposure, we require the patient to remain in their car for the testing process which requires swabbing deep into the nostril for a sample. I wear a face shield, goggles, a medical gown, boot covers and gloves to administer the swab test. It is impossible to explain the level of anxiety you have when walking to a patient’s car. It feel a little like we are in a war zone. All medical professionals take the chance of infecting themselves, which further exposes family and community members. The increasing numbers of positive COVID-19 cases leave us in fear of for patients, and as a physician, I often feel helpless. People are emotionally drained after losing jobs and their ability to get medicine. 

As a physician, I have no answers, treatment, or control. This is hard, heartbreaking, and emotionally exhausting. My workday is no longer normal as a physician. We are on the front lines with minimal personal protective equipment. It is a new day in medicine, a new day in America and a new day for Dr. Simmons. I ask for prayers for my staff, patients, and this county.