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From Poppies to COVID-19: Celebrating National CRNA Week

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It’s an extremely busy time for CRNAs (Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists). They are an instrumental part of the healthcare system, assisting doctors, surgeons, and dentists; but this year, they’re being tested like never before.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, many CRNAs have gone from administering anesthesia for surgery to working breathing tubes down people’s airways. They are also being asked to step in for exhausted nurses that need a moment to rest. Many of them have also pledged to help facilities administer the COVID-19 vaccine as the eligible population increases.

It also happens to be National CRNA Week, a celebration of the nation’s 57,000 nurse anesthesiologists.

The First Anesthesia Nurse

History tells us that humans used opium poppy and other herbal mixtures to null pain for thousands of years. Things changed on “Ether Day”, dated October 16, 1846, when William T. G. Morton and surgeon John Collins Warren successfully used diethyl ether as anesthesia to prevent pain during surgery.  

Thirty years later, Sister Mary Bernard, working at St. Vincent Hospital in Erie, Pennsylvania, became the first nurse to specialize in anesthesia. The technique soon became standard in the developing medical community. In the 1890s, Alice Magaw became known as the “Mother of Anesthesia” after showing her handiness with ether while working as a nurse anesthesiologist for Dr. Charles Mayo at St. Mary’s Hospital in Minnesota.

Agatha Hodgins founded the National Association of Nurse Anesthesiologists in the 1930s, cementing their contributions to the medical profession.

Being a CRNA During COVID-19

CRNAs were essential pre-pandemic, but everything started to change as more patients wound up on ventilators. Many CRNAs have switched over to helping those seriously ill with COVID-19, doing everything from inserting breathing tubes and feeding tubes to talking to patients’ loved ones. CRNAs have had to watch countless people slip away over the last ten months.

“It’s been very traumatizing on our staff. Sometimes we know it’s the last conversation that a patient can ever vocalize,”  Caitlyn Thompson, a CRNA at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, recently told a local news outlet.

Facilities have had to cancel procedures to devote more resources to the fight against the pandemic, including everything from hip replacements to mastectomies for breast cancer and other surgeries. As a result, many CRNAs have been let go or temporarily laid off.

According to Thompson, “Regions Hospital has a sub-specialty surgery center and it closed. The CRNAs at the specialty center were furloughed. We’ve been able to get them here for some trauma cases and the few elective [surgeries] that we’re able to do per the governor’s guidelines.” 

With lots of direct exposure to COVID-19 patients, nurse anesthesiologists have been on the front lines of the PPE wars, as well. Limited access to face masks, respirators, and even gloves can easily complicate matters.

Considering the risks, CRNAs now have to carry an entire backpack full of supplies around every time they respond to a patient.

In many cases, CRNAs are being asked to act more as a critical care or ICU nurse. However, switching over to a new skill set can be tricky, according to the American Association of Nurse Anesthesiologists (AANA). 

While CRNAs are licensed RNs, they have to consider a range of factors before taking on this role, including scope of practice laws, regulatory requirements, malpractice insurance, as well as their own health and safety. For these reasons and more, the AANA does not endorse the use of CRNAs in RN roles.

Still, many CRNAs have answered the call over the course of the pandemic, despite the risks. 

During the summer of last year as the virus continued to spread across the nation, the AANA asked several states to lift physician supervision laws that can limit a CRNA’s autonomy on the job. Twelve states have temporarily lifted these laws, while 33 states have no physician supervision laws in place.

Celebrating National CRNA Week

This year’s week-long celebration is arguably more important than ever. The AANA website is full of helpful tools to help you spread the praise of these professionals at your facility, including posters, a social media toolkit, merch, informational packets, and tips for different types of facilities.  

We all owe these amazing providers an incredible debt for stepping up during this unprecedented time. Don’t forget to say thanks to one of your colleagues as we continue to weather this crisis together. 

The 2021 National CRNA Week runs from Jan. 24-30.

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