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Nurse anesthetist reflects on a challenging and rewarding career

Stephen Katz, a nurse anesthetist at Powell Valley Healthcare, stands beside the machine he uses to anesthetize patients during surgery. The display on the left tracks oxygen; the one on top monitors the heart, and the tubes underneath control the mix of oxygen and anesthesia, with additional dials performing other functions. Being an anesthetist ‘is a highly technical job,’ Katz said. Stephen Katz, a nurse anesthetist at Powell Valley Healthcare, stands beside the machine he uses to anesthetize patients during surgery. The display on the left tracks oxygen; the one on top monitors the heart, and the tubes underneath control the mix of oxygen and anesthesia, with additional dials performing other functions. Being an anesthetist ‘is a highly technical job,’ Katz said. Tribune photo by Ilene Olson

As he contemplated the future of his nursing career, Stephen Katz decided he was ready for a different challenge.

So, in 2002, he left his job as emergency room manager at Powell Valley Healthcare and moved to Madisonville, Kentucky, where he went to school at Murray State University to become a nurse anesthetist.

Katz said he’d considered going into nurse management, “but I wasn’t ready to give up the clinical side of things.”

After he gradated in 2004, Katz worked at the hospital in Madisonville for another five years. He provided anesthesia services for surgeries ranging from routine procedures to open-heart surgery.

“I wanted some big hospital experience, then I wanted to come back to Powell,” he said.

The opportunity to return came in 2009, when a nurse anesthetist position came open at Powell Valley Healthcare. He jumped at the chance and has remained here ever since.

“I love my job,” he said. “I love what I do. I love Powell. I love being able to do what I do in Powell.”

Jan. 21-27 is National CRNA (certified registered nurses anesthetist) Week. This year’s theme is “Every Breath, Every Beat, Every Second: We Are There.”

Katz said he and the three other nurse anesthetists at Powell Valley Healthcare — Anthony Belmont, Andy Baker and Ryan Shedd — talk to their patients before each surgery.

“A lot of patients ask if we’re going to be with them the whole time, and we are. We’re with them from the operating room — from the beginning of the surgery — to the recovery room,” Katz said.

CRNAs administer two-thirds of all anesthetics in the United States, 80 percent of the anesthesia in rural health organizations and 95 percent of the anesthesia in military facilities, he said.

An anesthetist is a nurse (while an anesthesiologist is a doctor), but “we do the exact same thing,” Katz said. “The only real difference is, I can only do anesthesia. A doctor can change and do something else.”

Nurses were doing anesthesia long before doctors began doing it, he added.

“Anesthesia is a lot like the emergency room most of the time,” Katz said. “You have one patient at a time, and when you’re done with this patient, it’s time to move on to the next patient, and that fits my personality well. ... I like the closure.”

Katz said being an anesthetist is a “highly technical job,” and he likes that as well.

It’s also challenging. The more health issues a patient has, the more complicated the anesthetic, he said.

“Every patient is a serious patient,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a little anesthesia. I don’t want to overdramatize, but my job is life or death. ... I’m the one keeping them comfortable and safe and alive.”

During a surgery, there are many monitors in the operating room, Katz said, but “the most important monitor in the room is me — my vigilance.”

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