February 24, 2020

Tonia Yocum, PA-C

Orthopaedic Physician Assistant, Orthopaedic & Spine Center

For Tonia Yocum, a 30-minute lunch break is a rare luxury. Far more often, she grabs microwaved leftovers or some yogurt and a handful of nuts while she’s at her computer between patients. 

Yocum wouldn’t have it any other way. 

“It’s so rewarding to be able to help people become functional and happier again, and I don’t mind working hard to do so,” she says. “Our patients all deserve to have excellent care, which includes someone to help them understand what is happening to their body and the treatment they need.” 

Since 2002, Yocum has practiced alongside Dr. Jeffery R. Carlson, a fellowship-trained spine surgeon at Orthopaedic & Sports Center. They operate as an efficient team both at Dr. Carlson’s Newport News office and his two busy operating rooms at Mary Immaculate Hospital. 

During her 12-hour days, Yocum’s work might include taking X-rays, giving injections, stitching and bandaging surgical patients, reviewing medications, ordering tests or physical therapy, doing post-operative hospital rounds, dictating notes, consulting with multiple physicians and simply listening. “Sometimes, patients just need to talk about their pain and know someone hears them,” she explains.  

During in-office days, Yocum generally does her hospital rounds at 7 a.m. before starting patient appointments at 8. On surgery days, she often arrives by 6:30 a.m. to prepare orders and check equipment for 7:30 cases. She most enjoys the “construction” aspect of surgery: placing the screws, plates, rods and prosthetics that can restore strength and stability to patients who frequently have struggled with pain, deformities and mobility issues for years. 

Dr. Carlson handles many complex cases, such as adult scoliosis patients who require multi-level spine reconstruction. “They go from being severely hunched to standing up straight and looking you in the face, free of pain,” Yocum marvels. “It’s such an amazing feeling to change someone’s life like that, and to hear the heartfelt thanks from them and their families.” 

Growing up in West Virginia, Yocum decided on a medical career after hearing stories from her mother, an operating room nurse manager. “Some were funny and some were poignant, but they all taught me how meaningful this type of work could be,” Yocum recalls. 

After initially studying physical therapy after high school, Yocum gravitated toward the PA specialty during an early job at her mother’s hospital, Thomas Memorial in Charleston. She earned bachelor’s degrees in both Medical Science and Sports Medicine at nearby Alderson-Broaddus College. 

In 1996, Yocum started at a multi-specialty surgical practice in Alexandria, where for three years she helped with general surgery, plastic surgery, orthopaedics and some spine cases, most often lumbar laminectomies. While her colleagues shied away from spinal surgeries, Yocum was fascinated by them and quickly became the “go-to” assistant on them.  

After a three-year interlude spent living in Japan with her Army husband, Yocum jumped at the opportunity to partner with Dr. Carlson once her family moved to Hampton Roads. Today, more than 90 percent of her caseload involves spine care, a job that requires compassion, flexibility, organization, meticulous record-keeping and constant communication with Dr. Carlson.   

In her off time, Yocum enjoys hiking, golf, fishing and attending her 17-year-old son’s baseball games where – not surprisingly – she is the well-prepared mom with extra drinks and snacks, first aid supplies, sunscreen and bug spray to share.  

Yocum is excited about the future of orthopaedics, especially given ongoing improvements in surgical hardware and equipment, along with minimally-invasive techniques that have allowed for more outpatient procedures.   

“Our goal is always to get people back to their homes – and their lives – as quickly as possible,” she says. “That’s where the joy of this job comes from. It’s very demanding and time-consuming, but it’s the career I chose and which I love.”