CRNA Since 1976
My path to nursing and nurse anesthesia was not the most direct one. After graduating from high school and serving in the U.S. Army for three years, which included a stint in Vietnam, I returned home to Birmingham, Alabama.
When I returned to Alabama, I got a job in a steel mill. Steel mills were large employers back then and I had to have a job. One day while I was at work an older African American man asked me to write something for him. This older man had never learned how to write himself, so he asked me and I did. The older gentleman was so impressed with my handwriting that he told me I should not be working in the steel mill with him, he told me I should do something else with my life.
That older gentleman really caused me to take another look at my future. My mother worked in the nursery at the University of Alabama, Birmingham and I thought a hospital setting would be better for me. My mother helped me get a job as an orderly and I used my GI bill to enroll into the nursing program at Lawson State Junior College. I went to school during the daytime and worked as an orderly at night, which is how I met a lot of nurse anesthetists.
The nursing program at Lawson was new and I was happy to have another black male student in the program with me, his name was Billy Johnson. Once I graduated from nursing school and passed my boards, I immediately began working in a critical care setting.
When it came time to apply to nurse anesthesia school, I applied to three programs. There were four programs in Alabama at the time, I applied to one program in Mobile, and two programs in Birmingham. I was interviewed and turned down by all three programs. However, a student dropped out of the Birmingham nurse anesthesia program, and interim chief CRNA, Sara Seals, who was known for being highly skilled at pediatric anesthesia, knew my mother from the nursery. Ms. Seals respected my mother and told me I was going to be the first black male in the program. I was officially in the 1974 nurse anesthesia class at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.
The chairman of the anesthesia department at the University of Alabama, Dr. Guenther Corssen, had served in Hitler’s Army as a tank commander. Dr. Corssen was a key player in the early research surrounding Ketamine being administered intravenously, including the very first time it was administered to a human in 1964.
Like most students when it came time to take the certifying exam, I prayed to God and asked for his help in taking and passing the exam. I passed the test on my first try, becoming a nurse anesthetist in 1976. Since then, I’ve worked all over Alabama doing all types of anesthesia cases.
Everywhere I worked, people had never seen a black male anesthesia provider. The doctor would advise patients and their families about me ahead of time. During pre-op, some patients would ask where I attended school and how long I’d been practicing, but I was never replaced by another anesthesia provider. Over the years, I’ve given anesthesia to two or three generations within the same family.
I’d also like to encourage CRNAs to reach out to each other. CRNA Bettye Thomas, who retired from the University of Alabama Medical West, was the first person to invite me to an AANA meeting. My first meeting was in Chicago. Once you start coming to meetings, it’s like a reunion every time you return because you look forward to seeing the same faces and meeting new people as well.
I worked at the University of Alabama in Birmingham for 30 years and retired in December 2016.