Amid recession, an upswing in little-known nursing specialty

Don’t make the mistake of calling it a new trend. Nurse anesthetists, certified registered nurses specializing in anesthesiology, have been around since the Civil War, more than 140 years ago.

But as hospitals gear up for health care reform, uncertain how it will affect their bottom line, and continue to weather the recessionary storm, certified registered nurse anesthetists, or CRNAs, are a cheaper option than their medical doctor counterparts who earned a median annual salary of $321,686 in 2006.

And business is booming.

“They’re recruited like NBA stars, fielding offers right out of school,” says Marlene McDowell of the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists.

Many of these offers, McDowell said, include partial or full loan forgiveness, bonuses and generous vacation packages.

Better still, the national average salary for a CRNA is just below $160,000 a year. Many certified nurses can double their income with just two to three years of continued training, some of which can be completed part time while the nurse continues to work.

Many programs, like the one at Rush University in Chicago, will offer to pay part of a student’s tuition up front for each academic quarter.

For many outside the health care industry, nurse anesthesiology is a little-known specialty. But for insiders, competition at the 109 CRNA programs nationwide is fierce.

Colette Marenda, 29, is sparing no expense in making herself a more attractive candidate for Rush’s CRNA program. A critical care nurse at Rush Hospital in Chicago, she is currently working on a master’s degree in an advanced nurse practitioner program.

“Ever since I was little, I wanted to be a nurse,” Marenda said. And so with the help of her mother, a lab technician in Spring Valley, Ill., Marenda, while still a high school student, shadowed a CRNA.

“Since then it’s just blown up,” she said.

Within a five-year span, from 2004 to 2009, the number of nurse anesthetists nationwide has increased nearly 25 percent, from 33,146 to 44,000.

Marenda says she was drawn to nurse anesthesiology because of its “high-adrenaline, high-intensity” nature.

Judy Wiley, the associate director of Rush’s CRNA program and a CRNA since 1992, agrees, likening the job to that of an airplane pilot’s.

“Ninety-five percent boredom, 5 percent sheer terror,” Wiley says.

There is little room for error on an operating table, according to Wiley, and the most successful CRNA will have a “type A, detail-oriented personality.”

And amongst the 1,354 CRNAs in Illinois, morale appears to be high. In her nearly 20-year career, Wiley says she has not “met any nurse anesthetist who isn’t happy with their job.”

For anyone interested in careers in nursing or more specifically, in nurse anesthesiology, Wiley recommends he or she — while 7 percent of registered nurses are male, men make up 41 percent of all CRNA’s — speak with a CRNA who, Wiley says, would be more than happy to talk about his or her job.

Marenda says you’ll find that successful nurse anesthetists are doing it for all the right reasons.

“You really need to want to be there. It’s not all about the money,” Marenda says.

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