Cathy A. Harrison, MSN, CRNA, knew she wanted to become a nurse anesthetist since her junior year in high school.
She was working for a group of five pediatricians filing charts and making appointments when she was offered the opportunity to shadow an anesthesiologist at St. Joseph's Hospital in Asheville, NC, for a day.
"After that experience, I knew," she said.
Perfecting Her Skills
Following her graduation from nursing school in 1976, Harrison worked in the operating room at Mercy Hospital in Charlotte, NC, while applying to anesthesia school. In August 1977, she entered the Medical College of Virginia (MCV) nurse anesthesia program and graduated 2 years later.
Harrison's first job as a graduate registered nurse anesthetist was with Westwood Anesthesia Group, providing anesthesia services to Richmond Memorial Hospital and Henrico Doctor's Hospital (HDH).
As a recent graduate, she was able to work at both hospitals and especially enjoyed providing anesthesia for the newly established cardiac surgery program at HDH, she said. After a year, Harrison joined Chippenham Anesthesia and worked for that group for 19 years.
"During that time, I was encouraged to practice independently and given the opportunities to perfect my skills in central and arterial line placement, regional and general anesthesia techniques, and leadership and management," she explained.
Acting as chief certified registered nurse assistant (CRNA) from 1995 to 2000, Harrison was given the opportunity in 2000 to join two other CRNAs who were providing deep sedation in three cosmetic surgeons' offices, and also worked as a locum tenens at several local hospitals.
The year 2004 brought another opportunity with West End Anesthesia Group.
"I began working part time with the group until March 2011, at which time I went back into the independent practice of an office setting."
'I Wanted to Serve My Country'
Harrison's father is a retired chief warrant officer, which had her considering joining the Navy after graduating nursing school. She decided to wait until she completed the nurse anesthesia program at MCV.
Ten years after graduating, Harrison began to pursue her dream of becoming a Navy Nurse Corps officer in the reserve component.
"At that time, I believed I had something to offer and wanted to serve my country," she stated.
Less than a month after joining the Navy Reserves, Harrison was mobilized to National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, MD, in support of Desert Shield/Desert Storm.
"I was a newly commissioned lieutenant and knew very little about being on active duty, but I was a seasoned CRNA," she disclosed.
During that mobilization, she acted as a clinical instructor for the student nurse anesthetists and provided anesthesia care for active duty and retired members of the military and their dependents for 9 months.
In 2003, she was again mobilized in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, which took her to Navy Medical Center, Portsmouth, VA. She again taught anesthesia students from the Navy program and Old Dominion University, as well as provided anesthesia care.
Harrison was selected as the senior nurse executive for Navy Expeditionary Medical Unit, Germany '08 and deployed to Landstuhl, Germany, in 2007. During that year, she worked as a nursing supervisor, director of education and training, and director of clinical nursing.
The Navy Commendation Medals were awarded to her for work she had done for the reserve units she was assigned. She was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal by the Army for the work she did while stationed at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.
At the beginning of the year, Harrison was recognized in the Virginia General Assembly (Senate and House) as being the newly appointed commanding officer of the Operational Health Support Unit in Bethesda, which is comprised of 571 members, covering nine states and 17 detachments. The members include corpsmen, nurses, physicians, dentists and Medical Service Corps officers.
"It is my responsibility to ensure they are trained and ready to mobilize when called upon, and that they support Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and humanitarian missions," she said. She is the first and only CRNA in the Navy Reserves to be appointed commanding officer for an operational support unit.
Harrison revealed she is humbled and honored to have been selected.
"I believe the lessons in leadership I have learned over the years and the great mentors I have had the opportunity to work with will certainly be of benefit to me and the members of my unit," she said.
When asked how her background as a CRNA has helped her prepare for this new role, Harrison listed professionalism, the ability to think and act quickly in an emergency/crisis situation, and the ability to see the "big picture."
'Believe in Yourself'
After 33 years of practicing anesthesia in Virginia, one might say Harrison has contributed to the delivery of quality healthcare in the state.
She is president of the Virginia Association of Nurse Anesthetists, has taught students from the Virginia Commonwealth University nurse anesthesia program, and is a member of the leadership and access to care groups of the Virginia Action Coalition.
Today, she is teaching nursing students at Bryant and Stratton College in Richmond how to become "outstanding registered nurses."
Harrison offered some advice to other nurses who are inspired by her achievements.
"Believe in yourself, take pride in what you do, take advantage of opportunities that come your way and do not fear the challenges that you encounter on your professional journey," she concluded.
Beth Puliti is a frequent contributor to ADVANCE.