Students, rocked by politics, roll into careers

For the first time since the Class of 2007, all nurse anesthetist graduates passed their board exams on the first try.

“We feel very proud,” said Maegen Brass, who now works in Newnan, Ga. at Southern Crescent Nurse Anesthesiology. “There was a lot riding on each of us, as a student.”

More than their own careers depended on their successes. Just months ago, the program was included in the $25 million in cuts that the University System of Georgia Board of Regents requested universities make during budget reduction talks in 2010.

“I think that was a motivating factor for us to study harder and do as well as we could. We can’t afford to mess up when our program is on the chopping bock,” Brass said.

Jim Masiongale, Director of the Nursing Anesthetist Program, said closing the department would have devastated students. Transferring from one CRNA program to another is nearly impossible. The field is so competitive that GHSU only accepts about a fifth of its applicants – and, across the country, similar programs are full.

“So it was very scary for these students, and the fear never left them. Every time there was a mention of budget difficulty, they were always leery,” Masiongale said.

Even in the midst of fear, however, the students rallied by bringing public attention to the need for Georgia to educate more nurse anesthetists. According to the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists, CRNAs administer 60 percent of all anesthetics in the U.S., and in rural area, they may be the only individual qualified to administer anesthetics for 50 miles. They provide everything from epidurals for laboring women to trauma stabilization for rural hospitals prior to transport to more advanced trauma centers.

“If you’re driving through rural Georgia and you have a wreck, it’s likely a CRNA who will provide your anesthesia,” Brass said. So the students took time from their clinical rotations and spent it at the capitol talking to legislators and lobbyists, driving home the point that their constituents depend on the program. In 1990, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicated a national shortage of 5,400 CRNAs, and an annual shortage of 500-800 graduates to fill new and vacated positions. That means each program has a direct impact on the health services available in its state.

Masiongale said that the students’ activity got a lot of attention from Forbes, Business Week, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and WSB-TV, in addition to Augusta-area media such as The Augusta Chronicle and NBC Augusta.

And their campaign got results. Reps. Ben Harbin (R-District 118) and Barbara Sims (R-District 119) went to bat for the program, Brass said: “It was a great experience looking back on it – but it was not very fun when you’re a few months from graduating and $100,000 into student loans.”

All students in the class are now practicing nurse anesthetists, Masiongale said. Brass said during one day in March she worked on laparoscopic gallbladder surgeries, an orthopedic shoulder surgery and on chronic pain treatments.

And Masiongale has high expectations for the students who follow this class: “I expect the 100 percent passing rate to become the norm. As more people get excited about it, it will be news when we don’t make 100 percent.”

“We are so please that our team of highly credentialed CRNA faculty consistently delivered a rigorous academic and clinical program to facilitate this outstanding outcome for the class of 2010,” said Dr. Janie Heath, Associate Dean of the College of Nursing. “There is no doubt in our minds that this pattern of CRNA program excellence will continue to soar.”

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