Words and Images from the Front Lines

Welcome to a collection of first-person accounts, photos, and videos from Wisconsin CRNAs sharing their experiences as healthcare providers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. We encourage all WIANA members to share your stories, photos and/or video messages with us. Your contributions will be posted here for our various publics to access and learn more about the role and value of nurse anesthetists in our state's healthcare system. Thank you for the safe, compassionate care you provide patients across Wisconsin on a daily basis.

Tim Johnson, CRNA

"I work for the Milo C. Huempfner Department of Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It’s a CRNA-only practice. Three CRNAs and one SRNA are part of the 300-member staff that provides care for nearly 10,000 veterans in the area. Being an outpatient clinic, we provide care for mainly ‘bread and butter’ cases—low to intermediate risk procedures. During the first wave of the pandemic, all elective surgeries at VA clinics were halted. So, while we weren’t able to directly work with COVID-19 patients, we did everything we could to help. We became educators, policy reviewers and planners for the reopening of the surgery center.

When elective surgeries resumed, we wore full personal protective equipment (PPE), which luckily was never scarce. We also continued our roles as educators—public education is just as important as PPE for mitigating the spread of the virus. Some vets voiced their frustration. Some challenged the reality of the virus, denying significance of it. At every point, I reiterated what the experts are saying: Follow the science, listen to your primary care provider, report symptoms, wash your hands, wear a mask and heed social distancing guidelines.

It was tough sometimes. I’ve learned that excellent customer service is critical to vets. The vets have a rapport with other vets with whom they are comfortable being outspoken about rules they don’t agree with. They find it harder to be blunt with non-vets in that way, and vice-versa. As a non-vet, I don’t feel I have the same right to communicate in that manner with the vets, but I’m also obligated as a healthcare provider to keep the community as safe as possible. I’m thankful that there was not a lot of COVID exposure in our facility, but we also took no chances. While the environment is very harsh right now, I’m confident that it will get better. The VA is here to help."

Tim Johnson, CRNA

Tim Johnson, CRNA

Travis Sullivan, CRNA, Wisconsin Association of Nurse Anesthetists President

"I have always had a passion for healthcare and wanting to help people. Nursing was a natural path because several of my family members are nurses. My great uncle was a CRNA, and he suggested I shadow a CRNA while I was in nursing school. I immediately knew that I wanted to be one. As a CRNA, I usually have about 30 seconds to gain a patient’s trust and to let them know that I will be delivering the best and safest care for them. This can be challenging during normal times, but, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I often have even less time. My facility had to turn an entire unit into negative pressure rooms for COVID patients. Everyone on my team delivered exhausting hours of care and were constantly on call to care for these patients, some of whom were the sickest I’ve ever seen. Some didn’t respond to medications like your typical acute patient. Even asymptomatic patients requiring surgery had difficulties receiving anesthesia. It’s concerning that there are so many long-term effects surfacing for our asymptomatic patients.

A constant concern we healthcare workers have is getting infected and becoming asymptomatic spreaders to elderly family members. But, like all my colleagues, I’ve had to put the well-being of my community first. I’ve received both doses of the COVID vaccine, so I’m hoping we approach normalcy this year."

Travis Sullivan, CRNA, Wisconsin Association of Nurse Anesthetists President

Travis Sullivan, CRNA, WIANA President

Jess Tomasiewicz, DNAP, CRNA, RN, APNP

"When the first wave of COVID-19 hit, I was pregnant. I was wearing full personal protective equipment and pretty much doubling everything to make sure myself and my child were safe. We were lucky that my team was never lacking for PPE, but, still, there’s no way anyone can be completely at ease in that situation.

The uniqueness of presentations definitely made my job harder when treating COVID patients. You will have one patient with no signs and symptoms; the next patient is intubated, sedated, paralyzed and prone; the next has clotting issues; and another just can’t taste or smell. I had to put an arterial line in a patient with COVID in the ICU who was being proned to help her oxygenation. I actually saw her a few months back when I performed anesthesia for her cataract surgery. She didn’t even look like the same person I cared for. It was heart wrenching. On top of it all, since I was wearing so much PPE, I had a harder time seeing, hearing and feeling. As CRNAs, we’ve been trained for times like these. I had great clinical rotations as a student and worked in a rural independent hospital, so I was able to see all aspects of what we do in anesthesia. Before COVID, we would be called for help with the same things, just different patient conditions. However, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a long year. Like all my fellow healthcare workers, these trying times have reminded me of our commitment to our community’s needs despite the risk to ourselves and our families.

I just received my COVID vaccine. It gave me pause because I’m breastfeeding, but I’m confident that, by following the science, we can get back to normal faster."

Jess Tomasiewicz, DNAP, CRNA, RN, APNP provides patient care during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.

CRNA Jess Tomasiewicz

Jenna Palzkill, MNA, CRNA, APNP

"Back at the beginning of the pandemic when no one really knew what exactly was happening, I was called to the ER for a patient who needed emergency surgery. I was doing my preop assessment and asking about recent fevers, coughs or travel. The patient denied any symptoms but had been to O’Hare Airport in Chicago within the previous couple of days. I remember instinctively taking a step back and my heart speeding up and thinking to myself, here it is...patient 0 for SW Wisconsin. We proceeded to the OR and I layered up--extra gloves, extra masks, extra gowns. I was ready for battle! Then I saw the patient’s face when we came into the room and the fear that registered beyond what normally flashes across a patient’s face.

It was in that moment that I realized how much I needed to continue to work to connect with my patients—that even when I’m scared for myself and what I could carry home to my kids and family, I needed to continue to put my patient and my community first. I think that is what puts the ‘nurse’ in nurse anesthesia. I made it my personal mission to keep holding hands with patients through the extra layers and to keep patients and the rest of the OR staff laughing during the heavy moments."

Jenna Palzkill, MNA, CRNA, APNP provides patient care during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.

CRNA Jenna Palzkill

Grant Brekken, CRNA

Read Grant's Full Story / View Grant's Video

“Patients should never delay seeking medical attention, even during a pandemic. As CRNAs, we are committed to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of all patients in order to effectively minimize the risk of possible transmission of COVID-19.”

Grant Brekken, CRNA, provides patient care during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.

CRNA Grant Brekken
CRNA Grant Brekken
CRNA Grant Brekken
CRNA Grant Brekken

Staci Kothbauer, CRNA

Read Staci's Full Story / View Staci's Video

“There is no amount of PPE that will protect you from the emotional toll this will have on you. Be each other's emotional PPE. Be strong when your partner is weak. Help each other through this.”

CRNAs don full personal protective equipment (PPE) to care for COVID patients during the pandemic.

CRNAs Angie Ferguson and Kate LaFrancios
CRNAs Kelly Sinutko and Jim Albrecht
CRNAs Kelly Sinutko and Jim Albrecht
CRNAs Kelly Sinutko and Jim Albrecht