For Sheila Pinette, D.O., PA ’83, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the path leading to Maine’s highest public health office was a fast-paced and challenging journey – and one that began at the George Washington University (GW) School of Medicine and Health Science (SMHS) Physician Assistant (PA) program.
For a self-described country girl, coming to GW’s urban campus in 1981 and experiencing an international city for the first time was as intimidating as it was exhilarating. “It was alarming, it was beautiful, it was exciting,” said Pinette. “In the beginning it was overwhelming, but it was one of the most exciting times of my life.”
Alone in Washington, D.C., GW helped Pinette find a room, arranging for her to stay in the home of Marian Doyle, the widow of former Columbian College of Arts and Sciences Dean Henry G. Doyle. The two became close companions, and while Doyle’s home was a little far from campus, it served as a welcome refuge during Pinette’s rigorous education.
Like students today, SMHS PAs in the 1980s trained and completed clinical rotations alongside the medical school students, offering the opportunity for the two groups to share knowledge and build strong relationships. “We really learned a lot together,” said Pinette. “It was really fantastic the way it was set up.”
Pinette recalled her many mentors at GW, such as Frank N. Miller, M.D. ’48, B.S. ’43, chair of the department of pathology; Benny Waxman, M.D., associate chair of obstetrics and gynecology; and Thomas Eugene Piemme, M.D., who was integral to bringing the PA program to GW.
During her time at SMHS she became the school’s first Upjohn Presidential Scholarship recipient.
After completing her degree in August 1983, Pinette went to Hartford, Conn. to begin her PA career at St. Francis Hospital, where she served as a house officer for the neonatal intensive care unit. One late night a woman with an extrauterine pregnancy — where the baby is located outside the inner lining of the uterus — was brought in and had an emergency delivery. She resuscitated the 32-week old infant while a doctor treated the woman. That teamwork between Sheila and the doctor, Michael G. Pinette, M.D., FACOG, did not end there, and the two were married in August 1988.
In 1989 Michael was recruited by the Maine Medical Center to develop the maternal-fetal medicine program and to direct the women’s health program. Pinette joined him, working as a PA caring for high-risk patients in the program. Together, the couple strengthened the perinatal outreach program — building it from a staff of three to one of more than 50 employees with three other physicians — to address Maine’s high maternity morbidity and mortality rates.
In 1996, Pinette looked to build upon her medical training. She attended the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine in Biddeford, Maine, and earned a doctorate in osteopathy in 2000. She followed that with an internal medicine residency at the Maine Medical Center that she completed in 2003 – all this while raising a family.
Following her residency, Pinette began her own practice in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, which focused on osteopathic manipulation, women’s health, dermatology, adolescent medicine, and internal medicine.
After nearly a decade in private practice, Pinette was urged by her friends to apply to become the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). She did and, following a lengthy selection process led by Mary Mayhew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Pinette was offered the post. In April 2011 she was appointed under the administration of Governor Paul LePage.
Pinette attributes her selection to her diverse career path – as a paraprofessional, the co-developer of the perinatal outreach program, and a business owner. She believes her volunteer work also highlighted her dedication.
The mission of the Maine CDC is to preserve, promote and protect the health and safety of the people of Maine, while aligning with Maine DHHS to help people live healthy independent lives. As director, Pinette is the spokesperson of this mission. “It’s all about keeping the public informed and aware,” she said.
Since taking the helm of the Maine CDC, Pinette has many initiatives for which she can be proud, such as enacting policy changes for women’s health, collaborating to restrict elected deliveries prior to 39 weeks (which succeeded in decreasing preterm pregnancies), advising legislators on how to educate doctors and the public on breast cancer risk factors, promoting healthy eating and bringing down the state’s obesity rates, and raising awareness for Lyme disease, which is an epidemic in Maine.
As she reflects on her past accomplishments and current endeavors, Pinette believes her experiences as a PA student at GW were pivotal to her career. “I think my medical school experience was much easier because of the fact that I had such an outstanding preparation from GW,” she said. “I think I did quite well and it wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t have such a fantastic foundation to grow from.”
For Pinette, leadership and success have been a collaborative effort. “I attribute many of my successes to a strong educational foundation and passion for medicine much inspired by the faculty at GW,” she said. “With tremendous dedication, ambition, my faith, lots of positive energy, along with the love and support of my family and friends, I have been able to lead in a respectful, thoughtful manner as part of a community of leaders. No one person can do it alone, as it takes collaboration and partnership to succeed.”