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Nurse anesthetists like Shirley Gordner forged the way for CRNAs today

Pennsylvania now has more than 3,000 certified registered nurse anesthetists and ranks among the top states for CRNA students nationwide, with 12 university-level nurse anesthetist programs spread across the state. But things were much different when Shirley (Kishbaugh) Gordner graduated in the mid-1950s.

The Williamsport Sun-Gazette reports on Shirley’s certification as a nurse anesthetist in 1954.

Shirley was among just three student nurse anesthetists who comprised the first class at Williamsport Hospital and, in 1954, successfully completed examinations for membership in the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA).

It was uncharted territory then. The hospital had only received AANA’s certification for the 16-month nurse anesthetist course the previous year. At the time, Williamsport Hospital in Lycoming County was the only hospital in central Pennsylvania to even host a school for anesthetists. The other options were 90 miles away in Harrisburg or 80 miles north along the New York border in Sayre, distances made all the longer by rural routes.

Today, CRNAs are recognized for their rich history and well-established traditions. But it was trailblazers like Shirley who helped to establish the culture of safe, responsible anesthesia care that continues to this day.

For Shirley, who in 1952 became a registered nurse, a requirement for AANA membership and certification even today, becoming a nurse anesthetist was the next step in a health-care career that would span nearly half a century.

Shirley's AANA pin.

After receiving her certification, she stayed on at Williamsport Hospital for a few months and put her anesthesia training to use for patients there. But professional and personal changes meant a move.

Shirley moved to Berwick in Columbia County, where she would spend most of the next 20-plus years as an operation recovery room nurse and an emergency room nurse and another two decades as the head nurse for a beloved private practice doctor on Berwick’s West End.

Her husband, Carl, an Air Force veteran, worked mornings maintaining HVAC systems at Wise Foods, the makers of Wise Potato Chips. Shirley, still devoted to caring for others, worked for a time at Berwick Hospital on the second shift, from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., as the couple raised two sons.

Whatever they had to do, they did. Carl worked at the plant for 40 years before retiring. Shirley retired in 1992. She passed away in 2014. Carl survives, as do their two sons.

According to family, although her time as a nurse anesthetist was short, the achievement she felt for being among the first in her class was something she held dearly and spoke of fondly. And that desire to provide the best care possible carried with her throughout her career.

Shirley was an RN who devoted her life to caring for others.

As a tribute to his mother, her youngest son, state Sen. John R. Gordner (R-Columbia), has introduced legislation (S.B. 274) that would formally recognize nurse anesthetists as “CRNAs” under Pennsylvania statute. He grew up experiencing her love for the profession.

“She really enjoyed spending time with patients, listening to them, getting to know them,” Sen. Gordner said. “For as long as she worked, she was always an old-school nurse. There were no 10-minute appointments. She used to say that you can learn a lot more about a patient by listening than by being just diagnostic. She was very personable, and that came out in how she did her job.”

Because of his mother’s work, Sen. Gordner has been a long-time champion of nurse anesthetists. He was a featured speaker at the Pennsylvania Association of Nurse Anesthetists’ spring symposium in Hershey in May 2015, when he was awarded PANA’s prestigious Leadership Award.

“I probably wouldn’t be a state legislator today without my mother having all the connections she had and being so beloved in the community,” Sen. Gordner said.

Now, as Senate Majority Whip, one of the highest-ranking positions in the state Senate, Sen. Gordner is set to help finish something his mother started by making sure more people are aware of nurse anesthetists and the work they do.

Currently, there is no definition for “certified registered nurse anesthetist” under the state’s Professional Nursing Law, meaning these professionals are recognized only as registered nurses. Pennsylvania remains one of just four states that do not recognize CRNAs in this manner.

Sen. Gordner’s professional designation bill would remedy that and formally recognize CRNAs for the advanced training and education they undergo and the skills they administer to help patients — skills that Shirley (Kishbaugh) Gordner spent a lifetime perfecting.

This piece was originally posted on

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