Helping to heal: Three certified registered nurse anesthetists join Sanford Worthington Medical Center team
WORTHINGTON — During the Civil War 150 years ago, nurses first administered anesthesia to soldiers on the battlefields of the conflict.
Today, certified registered nurse anesthetists — CRNAs — continue that tradition of relieving the pain and trauma of injuries and medical procedures through much more advanced forms of anesthesia. Sanford Worthington Medical Center has a team of three CRNAs currently on staff, all having joined the facility in the last year.
David Kallas was the first to come on board, arriving in April 2013 at SWMC as a “traveler” — a medical practitioner who goes where there is a temporary need for his or her services.
A native of Leola, S.D., a small community near Aberdeen, Kallas initially pursued a laboratory tech degree and worked in phlebotomy and hematology at Hennepin County Medical Center in the Twin Cities.
“In high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he recalled. “But my older brother had gone through the lab tech program, so it was easy to just do that.”
But Kallas decided he wanted to do more in the medical field, so he went back to school to become a registered nurse.
“I kind of fell into nursing, too,” he explained. “My wife asked, ‘What makes you happy?’ and I said, ‘Helping people.’ And in nursing, there are so many things you can do. I just fell in love with critical care. That was my calling. I didn’t know it until I was there, but I really fit there.”
Economic changes that affected the nursing field prompted Kallas to return to school for his CRNA degree, offered through Mount Marty College in Yankton, S.D.
“But everything’s in Sioux Falls,” he said about the 30-month CRNA program. “You are only on the campus twice — when you register and when you graduate. We went back for graduation, and nobody’s really been there before, so nobody knew where to go.”
Right after graduation in early 2012, Kallas hit the road as a traveler — first stop, Oklahoma, where there was a dire need for an anesthetist due to an injury.
“I’d always thought about traveling as a nurse,” Kallas explained, “but it never worked out, so I looked at it as a good way to do something I always wanted to do.”
Kallas’ wife had no interest in going along, but they managed to see each other every few weeks.
“Living in a hotel room gets boring, so she visited quite a bit,” he said.
Raleigh, N.C., was a favorite stop on his traveling itinerary, but Kallas found the place he wanted to stay when his services were needed at the Worthington hospital.
“Somebody told me, ‘You’re going to travel until you find a place you really like,’” explained Kallas. “I came here, and it just felt right.”
Sanford Worthington Medical Center also felt like a good fit to Misty Hill, who just happened to be in the same Mount Marty CRNA class as Kallas, graduating in February 2012. Hill is originally from Arapahoe, Neb.
“I always thought I would do something medical,” she said. “There are a lot of medical people in my family, so it seemed like a natural direction.”
That “something medical” originally was nursing. Hill spent six and a half years working as a nurse in the intensive care unit. She started her nursing career in Omaha, Neb., and later was a traveling nurse in Arizona and California.
“I loved the ICU,” she said. “But once the patient left your floor, you never knew their outcome. (As a CRNA) you have immediate results.
“I didn’t start off saying I wanted to be a CRNA. I just knew I wanted to advance from being an ICU RN,” she continued. “My mom and my brother are both CRNAs, so I knew I’d love it.”
Hill’s first CRNA post was in Kansas City, Mo., but a recruiter managed to entice her with the prospect of a smaller practice in southwest Minnesota. She began her employment at SWMC in October, moving here with her significant other and buying a house.
“I really like it here,” said Hill. “I like the diversity of the community. When I lived in Kansas City, I really enjoyed taking care of a diverse population, and it’s even more diverse here. I never expected to find that in a town this size.”
The third member of the SWMC CRNA team took a completely different path to Worthington. Since her dad was in the U.S. Army, Andrea “Andy” Roberts, was born in South Carolina but graduated from high school in Alaska. It was natural for her to follow in her father’s footsteps, attending college in Seattle, Wash., on an ROTC scholarship.
“I got commissioned at the end of my four-year (nursing) program,” she explained. “My first duty station was Honolulu, Hawaii. (The Army) paid for my RN, paid for anesthesia school — it was great.”
While working as a head nurse at an ear-nose-and-throat clinic, Roberts became intrigued with the idea of becoming a CRNA — a prospect that was endorsed by her husband, an anesthesia tech.
“Then I went on a two-week deployment to Korea, and I was able to hang out with the anesthesia providers there and decided this is what I want to do,” Roberts explained.
She graduated with a master’s of nursing in anesthesia nursing from the U.S. Army Graduate Program in 2002.
Over the course of her 11-year Army career, Roberts attained the rank of Major and was stationed at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Fort Gordon, Ga., and Fort Wainwright, Alaska. Wainwright was a return home.
“I graduated from high school up there and still had friends up there,” Roberts said. “I knew the community, knew the people.”
Most recently, she has worked at St. Mary’s Hospital in Leonardtown, Md., and the Delaware Surgery Center in Dover, Del. Since her husband, Steve, is from Minnesota, the job at SWMC was a way to get back closer to his family.
Roberts and her family — husband, three children, small dog and three cats — spent seven weeks living in a hotel room when they first moved to Worthington.
“We left Dover Oct. 26 and moved into our house on Dec. 19,” detailed Roberts. “But the ladies at the AmericInn took good care of us. … Thank God for a swimming pool.”
Now that they are settled into a Worthington home, the kids are adapting to the Worthington school district and Steve is a stay-at-home dad who is active in Boy Scouting. They’ve also added a new member of the family — a golden retriever.
With three CRNAs on staff, a rotating schedule allows each of them to work two weeks straight and then have a third week off.
“You work Tuesday to Tuesday, then the second week you’re the one on call,” explained Roberts. “Then the third week you’re off from Tuesday to Tuesday. It’s a pretty nice schedule.”
On their call weeks, however, the CRNAs know they can be summoned to the hospital at any hour of the day or night. There’s no leaving town, as they need to be able to get to SWMC within a matter of minutes.
But being on call is a part of the job, and they’ve each learned to cope with it. Hill and Roberts both live full-time in Worthington, but Kallas and his wife live near Sioux Falls, S.D. To facilitate the demands of his job and knowing that apartments were scarce in town, he purchased a condominium in Worthington.
“You never know when you’re going to get called, and you have to work until the work is done,” explained Kallas, adding that being on call doesn’t cause him to lose much sleep — unless he gets a call. “I’ve gotten used to it. I know they’ll call me if they need me, and it can be so intermittent.”
All three of the CRNAs find satisfaction in their work, which includes “putting people under” for surgery, administering epidurals for pain relief during maternity labor and other painful situations, helping get an airway during codes in the emergency room and sometimes even helping start an IV. Their services are “utilized all over the hospital,” said Roberts.
“I really like the critical thinking part of it,” said Hill. “Not one patient is the same as the next, and I get to use what I’ve learned over time and apply it properly. … And we’ve got a great operating staff — the nurses, scrub nurses, pre-op nurses — are all fabulous.”
At SWMC, they see a wide variety of surgical patients — from routine scopes such as colonoscopies to general surgery, cataract removal and joint replacements. There are also a lot of labor and deliveries.
“It’s a lot busier than I thought it would be,” noted Kallas. “I thought in a smaller town, the pace would be slower, but we’re busy. The case mix is a pretty wide variety, and Sanford keeps trying to bring in new things.”
As a CRNA, Kallas feels he has control over managing his patients, something he didn’t always have as an RN.
“I’m able to take care of my patients the way I feel they should be cared for,” he explained. “We only have one patient at a time that we’re responsible for, and that enables me to give the level of care I like to see my patients get. … I plan for pain management from the first time I see a patient, all with the thought of managing post-op pain and discomfort.”
Eradicating pain and easing discomfort is what being a CRNA is all about, and Kallas, Hill and Roberts all have their own ways of going about it.
“I tell people to pick out a nice dream — someplace where they want to be and are relaxed and comfortable instead of scared and in pain,” said Roberts about her technique for administering anesthesia for surgery.
“You take these people who are very frightened from surgery, get them calmed down and have a good experience,” added Roberts. “I really love OB. There’s an instant gratification. You know they’re feeling miserable, and you’re able to help them get comfortable and enjoy the process.
“We’ve seen life come into this world and leave this world, and it’s a privilege to be a part of it.”
Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers may be reached at 376-7327.