From Operation to the OR: Amber Coleman '18 ‘humbled’ by the path to nurse anesthesia

Amber Coleman’s interest in nursing dates back to when she was 8, when she fell in love with the battery-operated surgery game Operation.

"From then on, I had my sights on going to medical school,” Coleman says. So she pursued a track that would lead her to become an anesthesiologist. But by junior year, her life priorities shifted – and the time it would take to complete medical school and a residency was overwhelming. 

“I had other things I wanted to do in my life at that time – like begin my career, get married, and start a family,” she says. A web search led her to the discovery of the nurse anesthesia specialty, a rigorous but ultimately less time-consuming path to providing patient care. A shift would, however, require some career years as a registered nurse in a critical-care setting – no problem, as she wanted to start working anyway. So she changed majors, earning a nursing major and biology minor.

After graduating from Hampton University in Hampton, Va., Coleman took a job at Duke University Medical Center and returned to Virginia at Norfolk General Hospital in its neurosurgical/trauma and general ICUs. When she began researching nurse anesthesia schools, she found the top-ranked VCU program located conveniently an hour and a half away in Richmond.

She enrolled in August 2016. And was immediately humbled by the rigor of the program.

“You know nursing. You think you are prepared for this program, because you know all you’ve been practicing and been taught, but it’s nothing compared to what you face in nurse anesthesia school,” she says. “You’ve never had this level of education before. Everything is new.”

“But,” she says, “you make it through.”

And she did so, she says, with the support of a passionate faculty, in particular Nickie Damico, Ph.D., CRNA, an alumna of the VCU program and the department’s director of professional practice. “Nickie helped me take a step back, realize that nothing is ever perfect, and helped me sharpen my study habits and take it day by day,” Coleman says.

Physiology classes were particularly difficult in piecing together the interrelationships between form and function of cells and systems, Amber says – a sentiment echoed by others in her cohort. While challenging, she enjoyed Medicinal Chemistry 532 and the principles and practice classes, where students learn concepts to plan and execute safe and individualized anesthesia as well as delivery in specialty settings and other specialty topics. 

In the first two of four semesters, Amber says, students will have all of the foundations they need to know to become a nurse anesthetist. By the third and fourth semesters semester, when the clinical portions of the program begin, “you begin to tie all that knowledge together.”

During the clinical practicum, VCU Student Registered Nurse Anesthetists (SRNAs) move between various anesthetizing locations at affiliate hospitals and apply relevant science and research learned in the classroom while engaging in direct, supervised patient care. VCU has over 40 clinical affiliations across Richmond and its distance learning sites in Abingdon, Roanoke and Northern Virginia. At each site, students are given a preceptor CRNA who “will show you the ropes,” Coleman says – and then step back and give students independence as they matriculate through the program.

“During clinical, you are performing as the nurse anesthetist; the patient is in your hands,” she says. “During the initial observation period, you might intubate or push meds, but you are quickly going to be doing it on your own. As you progress, [the preceptor] may even leave you by yourself. I love clinical and the responsibilities of caring for an individual while under general anesthesia and safely waking them up. I’m going to be doing this soon anyway, and there is no better way to learn.”

The focus and work has paid off for Coleman, the student representative for the Virginia Association of Nurse Anesthetists. As she approaches graduation, the wife and mother of two says she has grown as a professional, refined her nursing knowledge base, and – even if she was confident in an operating room environment in her previous life as an ICU nurse – is far more self-assured today as an SRNA.

Even more important, she says, is the opportunity she has gained to become a patient advocate and keep people safe in operating room and critical care environments.

Coleman says the experience at VCU has been life-changing, and is confident knowing a stable and rewarding career lay ahead.

“You hear how great and rigorous the program is prior to going in, but you don’t appreciate it until you go through it,” she says. “VCU Nurse Anesthesia is tough, but it is so rewarding. Every semester brings its own challenges, and you just adapt and keep going. You can lose yourself in this program. I definitely felt like I did.”

Amber, on going through the DNAP program as a mom:

“I have not worked professionally since starting the program. Working as a nurse would be very difficult with a family, particularly once the clinical portion starts. I treat school as a job and study during the hours I would normally work, especially on weekends, for six to eight hours. I study and get home by 6:30 or 7 and have dinner with family and decompress. Sometimes I pick up a book again, especially when you start clinicals –  you are always nervous and want to be prepared. It’s challenging mentally, emotionally and financially. And as a mom you don’t want to miss a beat and feel guilty about not spending as much time with your family as you’d like. But if you are determined and have a positive, grateful, humble attitude, you will do well in this program. 

We relocated [1.15 hours west] from Hampton to Richmond. My husband works in Newport News (an hour from Richmond) and commutes. It’s just the four of us, too; if you have extended family around it might be easier to get support during the week. But it’s just us, and we are making it work.”

Amber, on the interview process:

The faculty was interested in getting to know me, probing to make sure that I'd be a good fit for their program. I remember leaving the interview unsure of what just happened. I questioned if they liked me and if my answers were enough for admission into the No. 1 program in the country.” (We did; they were).