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Maj. Tori Pearce, one of three certified registered nurse anesthetists at Misawa Air Base, Japan, shows how general anesthesia would be administered to a patient through a breathing mask during surgery. The Air Force in recent years has increased re-signing bonuses for nurse anesthetists and is recruiting more.

Maj. Tori Pearce, one of three certified registered nurse anesthetists at Misawa Air Base, Japan, shows how general anesthesia would be administered to a patient through a breathing mask during surgery. The Air Force in recent years has increased re-signing bonuses for nurse anesthetists and is recruiting more. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Mothers tend to remember the doctor who delivered their baby. They also never forget the pain of childbirth and the drugs that helped ease those gut-wrenching contractions.

Less often remembered is the nurse in scrubs who administered the nerve-numbing epidural and stood by until mother and baby safely pulled through labor.

Misawa’s little-known pain managers are a close-knit group of three certified registered nurse anesthetists. Tori Pearce, Billie Hoyle and Diane Huston, the surgical services flight commander, all are Air Force majors who studied long and hard to specialize in anesthesiology, a branch of medicine dedicated to pain relief and patient care before, during and after surgery or other clinical procedures.

“We stay with a patient … because we’re responsible for their life, basically, making sure they’re breathing, making sure they have all the fluids they need and that their vital signs stay stable,” Pearce said.

They’re some of the busiest workers at Misawa. The three typically are responsible for 50 to 80 surgical and obstetric patients per month. Someone always is on call and they all carry pagers to assist with trauma cases and emergency calls.

“We like to be available for each other,” Pearce said.

Though their skills are needed in war zones, Misawa’s nurse anesthetists currently don’t deploy.

“We’re stretched pretty thin,” Pearce said. “I don’t think any of us are at the breaking point but it is a lot of hours and people don’t realize how many different aspects of patient care we’re involved in.”

Hoyle deployed once — to Kuwait shortly after the war in Iraq began in 2003. In five months she worked on 50 cases. They mostly were orthopedic procedures: fingers shut in a door, a hand blown off and other injuries.

An operating room nurse before specializing in anesthesiology, Hoyle likes blood and guts, she said.

“We have the capability of going into a human body and fixing what’s wrong,” she said.

Pearce said she’s loved anatomy since dissecting a frog in seventh grade. A penchant for science helps — nurse anesthetists’ studies include anatomy, physiology, chemistry, biochemistry and pharmacology — but the job also is an art when it comes to timing patients’ waking.

“There’s no cookie-cutter formula,” Pearce said. “Everything has to be tailored. What we want is for our patients to wake up and not be a whole lot different from when they went to sleep.”

Certification is a long haul: A bachelor’s degree, a registered nurse license and a minimum of one year acute nursing experience is required before entering a master’s degree program that can take up to 36 months.

The payoff can be lucrative. In a civilian hospital or private practice, nurse anesthetists can earn $125,000 annually or more. The Air Force in recent years has upped re-signing bonuses and other incentives to keep them and is recruiting more, said Pearce.

Military nurse anesthetists have more autonomy than they would in the civilian world, which often is driven by money or anesthesiologists who are medical doctors, Hoyle said.

Besides, Pearce said, “you’re dealing with a population that’s serving their country. There’s something noble about that.”

author picture
Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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