Colombia native and post-master’s DNAP candidate builds practice — and himself — through education


As a practicing CRNA for nearly eight years, Gabriel Restrepo loves his work, but hasn’t been satisfied with only focusing on the clinical or pharmacological aspects of anesthesia.

“I knew I always wanted to learn more about the policymaking process, novel anesthesia educational teaching techniques, how to improve patient safety, and how to get more involved with standards of care, protocols, procedures and regulations,” he says. “I want to make anesthesia better for everybody. I have a passion to get involved.”

Over the years, he’d regularly see VCU Nurse Anesthesia’s booth at CRNA conferences, and got to know Dr. Suzanne Wright, the Department’s professor and chair. “My dream was to complete my doctoral degree in nurse anesthesia at VCU,” Gabriel says.

And as these luck-would-have-it stories tend to go, a VCU Health recruiter who had his CV reached out one day with a job opening for a CRNA at the health system’s Community Memorial Hospital in South Hill. He took the job in 2017, moved from Maryland to Virginia, and shortly thereafter enrolled in VCU’s post-master’s DNAP program.

So why return for additional nurse anesthesia education?

“That’s a great question,” Gabriel says. “I’m going to be 52 this year. And everyone keeps asking me, ‘What are you doing going back to school? You get no monetary compensation or rewards, and it will take a lot of your time.’ But for me, there are multiple levels as to why: At the professional level, the theories and concepts offered in the doctoral curriculum path will enable me to become a more proficient clinician. The knowledge I gain will help me advance the nurse anesthesia profession and improve the health of our communities. And at the personal level, through the motivation and instruction of VCU’s talented faculty, I want to become the best professional and person I can be.”

“I know that path requires the next step, which is to obtain a doctoral degree in nurse anesthesia.”

That step has been more than two decades in the making. Growing up, Gabriel saw no future for himself in his home country of Colombia, South America. So in 1997, at age 27, he moved to the U.S.

He spoke no English and had no support or family nearby. Around his new home of Stamford, Conn., he held a number of jobs — “you name it, I did it” — as a construction worker, a landscaper, and a painter. Then he moved to restaurants. At first washing dishes. Then a runner. Then a waiter.

As his income grew, he decided to invest in himself, enrolling in a program at the local community college to become a paramedic. That requires starting out as an EMT. One day, the emergency department director at the Stamford hospital he routinely visited took notice of his educational track, and pushed him to become a nurse instead of a paramedic. She said he could do more with his career, and explore a greater number of opportunities.

The idea took root. Already enrolled at the community college, he shifted his mentality — and then, his course of study. He graduated in 2002 with an associate’s degree in nursing. He worked as an RN on various floors at Bridgeport Hospital — all while taking online classes for the BSN he earned in 2009.

During his time at Bridgeport, he met many CRNAs, who pushed him to pursue a career as a CRNA “because they saw I was interested in their work,” he says.

So, he kept up his education, completing all the requirements — ICU training, becoming a critical care nurse — to apply for a nurse-anesthesia program. He earned his certifications, built experience, and racked up required references. He applied to and was accepted to the University of Maryland’s Nurse Anesthesia program in 2011, graduated with honors in 2013, and has practiced as a CRNA since 2014. 

VCU Nurse Anesthesia’s post-master’s Doctor of Nurse Anesthesia Practice (DNAP) program prepares CRNAs to assume leadership positions in education, management, and clinical practice, with a curriculum focused on patient safety and human factors, ethics, quality assessment and improvement, health care systems and organizations, leadership, evidence-based practices, policy/advocacy practice, research, and adult education.

It’s also designed for full-time working CRNAs like Gabriel, and has the flexibility of one- to three-year completion options. The fact that classes are online (in non-COVID times, there are three on-campus sessions each year) wasn’t new for Gabriel, who had taken online classes since web-based learning even first began to emerge.

“When I started my education in 1999, I had to work to sustain my family, I couldn’t just say, ‘Oh, I’m going to college.’ So I’ve been forced to take so many online classes over the last 20 years,” says Gabriel, who will graduate with his DNAP in May 2021. “At VCU Nurse Anesthesia, the technology has been great. You’re able to login and see conferences, recordings, and review material at any time. It really makes a big difference in how you learn.”

His advice to those considering the DNAP? “I see a lack of involvement from many nurse anesthesia professionals. I tell students at my hospital: ‘Listen, you’re overwhelmed with clinicals and other studies and more, but never forget that in the future, you may want to take your career farther. And if you don’t get involved now, you’re going to have to fight those battles,’” Gabriel explains. “One of the ways to get involved is to move to the next level of your education with the doctoral program. Let’s all get on the same level so that we can continue pushing policy in favor of the anesthesia profession.”

And if you still think the DNAP path is too difficult or challenging, keep in mind: In 2012, deep into his education to earn the requirements to become a CRNA, Gabriel became an American citizen.

Gabriel’s doctoral project: Drug screening anesthesia patients

Every post-master’s DNAP student must complete a doctoral project, which is intended to demonstrate integration and synthesis of concepts learned throughout the program and practice experience. Gabriel has witnessed firsthand many anesthesia patients who, at the time of procedure, have illicit substances in their system. But there’s no standard of care around testing and treatment, which is a problem he wants to solve. Learn more about Gabriel’s doctoral project.

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