Success and Struggle on the Physician Associate Career Path


For Fatimah Zaghari, PA-C, joining the Atrium Health Union Hospital Emergency Department team in 2019 gave her a homecoming to the professional family she’d formed along her career pathway. She now practices alongside some of the same mentors who urged her to keep pursuing her goals.

Originally planning to be a teacher, Zaghari fell in love with the practice of medicine after taking on a volunteer assignment as a teenager. When she was only 15 years old, her brother passed away and, in her overwhelming grief, she searched for a way to help others.

“I decided to volunteer at Atrium Health in Charlotte and the volunteer coordinator asked me what I wanted to achieve out of volunteering,” Zaghari recalls, “I told her that I just want to be there for others during the last moments of their lives. I want to make them laugh, smile, and remember that they’re not alone.”

As she sat with patients in their final moments, many without family members to comfort them, she felt called toward a career in health care.

“That was when I realized this is where I belong, that medicine is for me. Patients are who I want to be helping, and I want to have that positive impact on them,” she confirms.  

TAKE TO THE FIELD: Path to Become Physician Associate

She shifted her career objective from education to medicine, setting her focus on college and PA school. Hurdles soon appeared, but she mustered the strength to leap over them. In her first semester of freshman year, her mother was diagnosed with cancer, and the following year her father suffered a stroke which forced him to retire early. Zaghari was then forced to figure out a strategy to afford her university and then a PA program. Ever resourceful, she sought the support of a school counselor and an internship advisor.

“I picked up three jobs,” she reveals, “I became a scribe in the emergency department, a Spanish interpreter/receptionist at a diabetes free-clinic, and a Spanish/math tutor.”

Each day presented her with a new exercise in perseverance. When she felt her motivation waning, she was spurred on by the cheerleaders surrounding her.

“I failed. I failed multiple times,” she admits, “but I picked myself back up. I had all the support that I needed from my parents and from the doctors and PAs at work.”


When the time came to apply to PA school, she worried about her eligibility and her confidence dwindled.

“I decided to ‘just try’ applying to PA school and applied to only one,” she admits, “because I did not think I was competitive enough or smart enough. I didn’t think I would be accepted.”

Her fears proved to be unfounded when, two months later, she was invited for an interview and then offered a seat in the class.

“I was in the middle of Spanish class, secretly checking my email,” she confesses, “when I yelled out in front of my classmates and professor, ‘I GOT IN. I GOT INTO PA SCHOOL!‘ Tears of joy ran down my face. Struggle after struggle — not feeling worthy enough, or smart enough, or financially capable of achieving this major goal…and I did it.”


Once in the PA program, the rigorous courses challenged her far beyond any expectation, but she tackled each one with fierce determination that revealed her mettle for the career.  She’d been so inspired by her time as a scribe at Atrium Health Union emergency department that she sought out that location for her ER rotation. She was accepted into that program and invited to interview for a position on the team upon earning her degree.

“From starting off as a scribe to completing my ED rotation to now [working as] a PA at Atrium Health Union, I really have come full circle. Words cannot describe how blessed I feel to join such an incredible team of doctors and PAs who constantly push me to be the best that I can be and who are always encouraging me to learn … Being a PA is all about giving back for me. Giving back to the same community that basically raised me to become who I am today.”

Zaghari has certainly come a long way from doubting if she’d even be a candidate for highly-competitive emergency department physician associate jobs. She believes her difficult journey transitioned into a beautiful new pathway she plans to travel for a long time.

“I now have a chance every day to help at least one person, to make someone smile or laugh,” she says, “and maybe even save a life if I can, all while doing it with the people I call family. And would I ever do anything differently? Never.”

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