New program trains nurses in anesthesia study

If you’ve ever been put under anesthesia for surgery, chances are you’ve received care from a certified registered nurse anesthetist. One writer calls CRNAs the “best-kept secret in American healthcare” even though there have been men and women in this field for about 150 years.

Shawn Collins, assistant director of the Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist program, supervises as student Lance Greer practices administering anesthetic to a simulated patient.

Shawn Collins, assistant director of the Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist program, supervises as student Lance Greer practices administering anesthetic to a simulated patient.

Their “secret” is that these advanced care nurses, who are highly skilled in delivering anesthetics, often are confused with doctors who specialize in anesthesiology.

At Western Carolina University, the first class of 11 registered nurses who are working toward their master’s degrees and training as CRNAs, are learning how to use the powerful drugs on their patients, how to monitor their level of consciousness during various procedures, and what to watch for as they come out of anesthesia.

“We had a great pool of talented applicants, and we chose the best,” said program director Cheryl Johnson, herself a CRNA who has taught for the Army and Air Force. Johnson now lectures at the Mountain Area Health Education Center in Asheville and is on the staff of Asheville Anesthesia Associates, one of the 13 health care organizations that contributed to Western’s Nurse Anesthesia Endowment.

Successful applicants in Western’s program must have earned a score of 1,000 or better on the Graduate Record Examination and must have worked for at least a year in intensive care, which usually requires years of prior experience. Having patients’ lives in their hands is not new for these nurses.

Lance Greer, who enrolled in Western’s program after working in the ICU at Duke Medical Center, welcomes the challenge. “Being a CRNA is something I’ve always wanted to do,” Greer said. “You’re there for the whole thing. You put your patients to sleep, and you wake them up. You’re their voice. You’re the one watching over them and taking care of them. I like that amount of responsibility.”

Tari Texter, who worked as a nurse in Mission Hospitals’ open heart surgical unit in Asheville, agreed. “It’s an awesome challenge. But, if you’re going to do something, be the best. The CRNAs I’ve talked with love their jobs. I’m excited about it,” Texter said.

“Work for these anesthesia specialists is 99 percent boredom and 1 percent sheer terror,” said Shawn Collins, assistant director of the program. “They have to be able to keep cool even when things are going wrong.”

And they have to be able to work on their own without direct supervision. According to the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists, CRNAs are the sole anesthesia providers in approximately two-thirds of all rural hospitals such as the ones that serve much of Western North Carolina. That’s why they need excellent preparation, Johnson said, the kind of preparation that Western’s program is designed to provide.

“A 100 percent pass rate on the national board exam is my goal,” said Johnson. That’s the mandatory national certification exam candidates are required to pass before they can take on the kind of life-and-death responsibilities that lie ahead for Western’s successful CRNA graduates.

For more information, contact Western’s School of Nursing at (828) 227-7467 or go to http://nursing.wcu.edu/.