Seeing her aunt work as a medical secretary throughout her childhood inspired Amber Nelson, CMA (AAMA), to dream of working in health care too. 

“Growing up, I would tell her that I wanted to be just like her,” says Nelson. “And I went for it. Initially, I went to school to be a medical secretary, but my counselor suggested taking more classes to get my medical assisting degree.”

Nelson took the advice. She graduated from the medical assisting program at Spencer College in Spencer, Iowa, in 1997 (a program since relocated to Iowa Lakes Community College, Spencer Campus), and immediately took the CMA (AAMA) Certification Examination. However, she missed passing by a thin margin. “Because I failed, I didn’t think I could work as a medical assistant, and I didn’t know what to do. I was so discouraged. I guess I wanted to get away from small-town Iowa, and decided to move to Pennsylvania to be a nanny,” she explains.

As it turned out, East Coast life was not her style, and after two years, Nelson moved back to Iowa. Upon her return, Nelson’s father connected her with a friend who worked in the admitting department at Cherokee Regional Medical Center. “She liked my background and hired me on as an admitting clerk,” says Nelson.

After working in different secretarial roles for five years, Nelson accepted a receptionist job at a clinic attached to the hospital, the Cherokee Regional Clinic. “I did that for a few years until I was asked to be the sole scheduler for a doctor who sees about 50 patients a day,” says Nelson. 

From there, her responsibilities grew as she tapped into her medical assisting skills more and more. In 2009, she took on the role of transferring paper medical records to electronic health records (EHRs). After that, her manager asked her to draw labs and give shots. “I was a bit hesitant, but I did [them], and it was the best move ever,” she says.

When the clinic switched to Epic as its EHR software, Nelson assisted with record transfer. At the same time, she took on even more duties. “The nurse manager asked if I would help a doctor take vitals and be the backup scribe, which meant I was in the room with the doctor and patients, taking notes electronically,” she says. When the main scribe went on maternity leave, Nelson filled in for her full time. 

With all her added responsibilities, Nelson asked for “medical assistant” to be added to her name tag. “It said ‘tech’ when I first started drawing blood, but I didn’t like that—I was rooming patients [as well as] taking their blood, history, and vitals, but they didn’t know I was a medical assistant. My employer agreed and didn’t hesitate to change it.”

Nelson’s enthusiasm for the job and confidence in herself was tested when she learned last June that she would have to become certified to continue with her EHR duties. 

“It brought me back 20 years when I took it the first time. I got really scared. I have never, ever taken a test well in all my schooling. I was so worried and just thought I’d get in there and fail again,” she says.

Still, Nelson prevailed. She studied for four months with books, flash cards, and lengthy handwritten notes. She took the CMA (AAMA) Exam last October. “I passed with flying colors. I did better than I thought I could. As soon as I got to my car, I cried with joy. I am so proud of my accomplishment,” she says.

Her aunt is proud too. “She always teases me now saying ‘You know you can take my place anytime.’ I tell her I’m happy where I’m at. After all, I’ve got the CMA (AAMA) credential on my badge.”