Q&A with Physician Assistant Melissa Portell

photo of Portell family
Melissa Portell and family at Big Cedar Lodge this past summer: husband Ryan holding son Drew and Melissa holding daughter Evie.

Washington University Physician Assistant Melissa Portell shares the joy she receives spending time with family, riding, and accompanying head and neck cancer patients through their survivorship journey.

What is your current title and how long have you been with WashU ENT?

I am a physician assistant that sees mostly head and neck cancer patients, and I have been with the department for over seven years. Prior to this, I worked at Northwestern Hospital in Chicago in the solid organ transplant service with two other physician assistants.  We spent half our time in the operating room with living donor surgeries (kidney and liver) and the other half in the vascular access and pre-transplant evaluation clinic. Before PA school, I was a nuclear medicine technologist.

photo of Portell family
The Portell family enjoyed Boo at the Zoo at the St. Louis Zoo this past Fall.

What do you like most about your work here?

I love caring for my head and neck cancer survivorship patients. My uncle had tonsil cancer, and unfortunately lost his battle, so this patient population is close to my heart. Being able to help patients through a difficult time is rewarding for me. Helping them understand what to expect with lifelong treatment, the related side effects, and acknowledging their personal experience makes such a big difference to them. They receive so much information upon diagnosis that it can be overwhelming. For many patients, the survivorship clinic visit offers a sense of security, and it’s the best part of my day to be able to give them some peace of mind that they remain cancer free.

The survivorship support group is another valuable resource available to our patients.  The group meets monthly, where survivors and their family/supporters find comradery and information to help guide them through their survivorship journey. I’m excited to see what the future holds for the group as there are so many parties interested in its success and growth.

Did something influence you to want to work in a medical setting?

I have worked in the medical field since I was 15. I starting in a film library purging old records, and I have stayed with healthcare related work since then – now patient oriented. I enjoy working in a large healthcare system, and I have certainly been lucky to work with a really great team here.

photo of Portell at Pedal the Cause
Portell recently acquired a love for riding after she joined colleagues on stationary bikes at a recent Pedal the Cause event.

What spare time activities bring you the most joy?

I love spending time with my 5-year-old son Drew and 2-year-old daughter Evie. Given my work schedule, our time together is really important to me. They are busy, fun, hilarious, and quite honestly – exhausting.

I joined two of our medical assistants for a spinning class as part of the recent Pedal the Cause, and that seems to have launched my newest obsession. I subsequently rented a Peloton bike, and it looks like I’ll be purchasing one soon – I love the workout. I have to create the spare time and 4:30 a.m. seems to be it, but it works for me a few days each week.

I also love to read when I can stay up long enough to get through at least a few pages. It’s not a normal night if I fall asleep without my Kindle hitting me in the face by 9:30 p.m.

Is there a special something at the top of your bucket list, and why?

A trip to Italy is at the top of my list. I’ve always wanted to go, and after hearing my husband’s stories about his summer in Siena as part of WashU’s architecture program, I want to visit even more.