By Matt Skoufalos
As a teenager, Kristy Wheeler grew up watching “ER,” the 15-season NBC medical drama that followed the lives of emergency room staff at a fictional Chicago hospital. The show resonated with her so much so that Wheeler decided to pursue a career as a surgical technologist. After completing a certificate program and associate’s degree in science at Baltimore County Community College, she landed in the operating room at MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland, at just 19 years old. One year in, Wheeler doubled-down on her decision to enter health care, and pursued a bachelor’s degree in nursing.
“I really enjoyed being a surgical technologist, and I have maintained my certificate; I’m still scrubbing currently,” Wheeler said. “But being a scrub tech affirmed that I really wanted to do nursing. It definitely gave me an edge becoming a perioperative nurse, because I understand both sides very well; I can scrub and circulate.”
Leveraging her work experience, Wheeler was accepted at Coppin State University in Baltimore, Maryland, where she attended classes while working full-time and overnight hours at Franklin Square. (Confusingly, her practical career experience occasionally conflicted with the textbook answers her instructors were seeking.) When all was said and done, Wheeler was hired into a nursing position at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. She was the first nurse there ever to finish her orientation ahead of schedule; a clear sign of her command of institutional and applied knowledge.
“Mercy saw me as having a huge advantage of being able to scrub right out of the gate,” Wheeler said. “One of my doctors told me, ‘You already knew how to do the job, you just had to go back and get the degree.’ ”
She wasn’t done there, either. While working at the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC), an academic hospital, where “the school of nursing was right across the street,” Wheeler achieved her Master of Science in nursing (MSN). In a career where a bachelor’s degree has become entry-level standard, she knew a master’s degree would open up another tier of professional opportunities.
Today, Wheeler is a senior clinical nurse and service line coordinator for the acute care emergency surgery service line at UMMC. She oversees a team, leads process improvement projects, and tracks down special supplies for the patients under her care, all mostly on the fly in an emergency care environment.
Wheeler credits her involvement with the Association of periOperative Registered Nurses (AORN) as having helped her find the confidence to pursue her master’s degree and the supervisory roles within her institution.
“I definitely didn’t set out thinking I would end up being a master’s-degreed nurse,” Wheeler said. “My involvement with AORN opened the door for that for me, and gave me the encouragement that I could get an MSN. I was able to use that to translate into a leadership role.”
Wheeler’s initial experience with AORN came at its surgical conference and annual expo. After her local chapter helped subsidize her travel to San Diego, she had the chance to see first-hand all that the organization has to offer.
“It affirmed the magnitude of what we are doing, of our organization and the impact and respect that our organization has worldwide,” Wheeler said. “I came back from the expo and got more involved in the chapter, and ran for a nominating committee. The next year, I ran for president of the chapter, and I’m going to be president for the third time in 2022.”
During her first term as chapter president-elect, Wheeler attended a volunteer leadership academy at AORN headquarters, where she met its board of directors and nominating committee. Soaking up the history of the organization deepened her connection to it, but the visit also affirmed for AORN members the value in cultivating a diverse group of voices among its leadership.
She ran for – and won – a seat on the national AORN Nominating Leadership Development Committee.
“I went to my first meeting, and wanted to just observe,” Wheeler said. “Then they got onto a topic that I’m passionate about, social media, and then I got started talking. I was really worried; I apologized to the chair of the committee at the time. I was 32; she was 62.”
“She thought about it, and said, ‘If I didn’t have social media, I wouldn’t know what my kids were doing,’ ” Wheeler said. “I think that was a real unique time for the committee, and I think it kind of opened doors for others in national AORN. I think it started to change their mindset of my age group.”
The moment stayed with Wheeler, and strengthened her resolve to find her voice and give truth to her experiences in a professional setting. Her bravery was rewarded: she was added to the AORN national ballot that year. In 2016-17, she chaired the national nominating and leadership development committee just a year after having won election to it. The lesson she took away from the experience was one she shared with her colleagues for years to come.
“There are institutions where the nurses don’t feel they can speak up; they don’t feel empowered,” she said. “And it’s slowly changing.”
“How I ended up where I am is I said ‘yes,’ ” Wheeler said. “Don’t turn down any opportunity, big or small, because you don’t know where it could lead in the future.”
“To see how things were 15 years ago compared to now is night and day,” she said. “It gives me great hope that we’ll continue to grow as nursing and hospital administrators and physicians are more focused on care. The value of the nurse is more than it ever has been.”
Emboldened and empowered to trust her own intuition and professional judgment, Wheeler also participates in a program at UMMC with her two-year-old “nurse puptitioner,” Sawyer the Goldendoodle, whom she’s trained as a therapy dog. Once a month, Sawyer visits with patients and staff to help them emotionally discharge the energy of their days. His middle name, Adson, is taken from the surgical forceps, and Sawyer finds every opportunity to show he belongs in a hospital environment.