A Conversation with Maria "Sallie" Poepsel: A Journey Through Nurse Anesthesia
As part of the AANA’s continued Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts, I Am Me, and in observance of Asian & Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the AANA had this conversation with Maria “Sallie” Poepsel, PhD, MSN, CRNA, APRN, to discuss her journey to become a CRNA, her life’s philosophies, and other things she has learned along the way in nurse anesthesia.
Read more articles from our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion series here.
What would you describe as your first leaning towards science, healthcare, nursing, and nurse anesthesia?
In the Philippines, a national exam is given to high school students to determine if you have the aptitude for college. In addition, once you receive your aptitude scores, you can start to research what you want to major in. In the Philippines, women are encouraged to pursue careers in nursing or education; however, my first career choice was not healthcare. I had planned to pursue a career in either law or engineering. I have six brothers who are either engineers or architects, two sisters who work in the finance/banking industry, and the youngest sister is a food science technologist.
What inspired you?
My first cousin encouraged me to pursue nursing school and she really liked it, so I decided to look into it too. Ultimately, I applied and received a scholarship that included everything except books. I really took to the sciences and loved chemistry, microbiology, and gross anatomy in college.
As noted in the feature story about Phil B. Mangahas, DNP, MS, CRNA, both are natives of the Philippines, Sallie and Phil both attended the University of Santo Tomas (UST), which is the oldest existing Catholic university in Asia. UST was established in 1611 through the initiative of Miguel de Benavides, the third Archbishop of Manila, which makes UST older than Harvard University.
When did you come to the United States?
May 11, 1976. I was 22 years old. My cousin wanted me to accompany her to an interview with a healthcare recruiter for nursing positions in the United States. I had just finished my nursing shift and was still wearing my uniform, but I met up with her and we went. After the recruiter interviewed my cousin, they said they wanted to interview me too, even though I was not there for that. I interviewed and was offered a nursing job at a county hospital in Columbia, Missouri. At that time, I was also working on my thesis for my master’s degree in nursing and was six credits shy from graduating with my advanced nursing degree. Accepting the nursing position would mean leaving the country and not completing my master’s degree.
Accepting the position was a difficult decision for me, however I wanted to keep my promise to support my sister financially so she could finish her undergraduate degree. My older brother did the same for me while I was in nursing school. So, I put graduate school on hold to pay it forward for my younger sister.
How did you discover nurse anesthesia?
I remained a registered nurse for quite some time. I was a late bloomer, I went to nurse anesthesia school when I was in my 40s. I had 20 years of critical care experience between teaching, clinical, and management positions. I had begun working on a doctorate in gerontology, then decided to switch to anesthesia. My husband had been practicing as a CRNA since 1988. After he returned from Desert Storm, I decided to pursue nurse anesthesia. I told myself if my husband can do it, I can too. When he was in anesthesia school, I had helped him with his papers and research, so I had had learned many nurse anesthesia principles by osmosis and by frequent exposure to the clinical courses he was taking during his anesthesia studies.
I attended nurse anesthesia school at the Minneapolis VA Nurse Anesthesia Program. I am not sure if it is still in existence, but at the time the VA system had a registered nurse anesthesia scholarship program. In 1990, there was such a shortage of anesthesia providers and they were trying to increase the pipeline by awarding these scholarships. This scholarship included a salary with vacation and sick time, tuition, and books. So I was very lucky and blessed to graduate with no debt. There were six of us selected from VAs around the country. For every year of VA scholarship support the VA supported you had to pay them back, so I owed them two years when I graduated from nurse anesthesia school. I did not expect a scholarship.
How do you incorporate your authentic self into the practice of nurse anesthesia?
I make a conscious effort to understand where my patients are coming from by establishing a rapport. I make it my practice to be culturally competent. If my patients speak a different language, I request a translator right away, or I use a translation app that helps me speak the basics of that particular language. Using the translation app has also helped me to quickly make a connection with an apprehensive patient. It definitely helps the patient relax. I also speak Spanish, which helps me communicate with my Latin American patients.
Over the years, I have shifted some of my thinking. When patients say to me that you are not American. I never argue, I just listen. Then I ask them, do you mean my nationality or where I was born? I am also asked what school I graduated from. I answer their question and then circle back to the pre-op interview. I always practice empathy, figure out where the patient is coming from, and identify a bridge that will allow us to make a connection, because they are very vulnerable when they meet their anesthesia provider.
Being your authentic self will open up amazing opportunities, such as from 2016-2020, I was nominated and served on the National Advisory Committee for Rural Health through the Office of Health and Human Services and was the first and only CRNA to serve on this committee at the time. As an alumnus of this committee many other opportunities to represent our profession has arisen, including the Department of Labor contacting me to redefine what CRNAs do, and the appropriate fees associated with our work. Currently, I serve as a board member and commissioner for the Accreditation Commission for Health Care, serving domestically and internationally. No matter what I do outside the anesthesia community, I remain very passionate and involved in our anesthesia profession. I have been active with the AANA both at the state and national level for over two decades.
Advice to students or young CRNAs?
Keep your eyes on the horizon. Perseverance and hard work pay off. You can be what you want to be but always be grateful for what you have. Nurse anesthesia is one of the most, if not the most incredible profession to be in. Be the best version of yourself and always find hope in the unexpected, whether personally or professionally.
A CRNA for more than 25 years, Sallie graduated from the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, Philippines with Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing, and Saint Louis University in Missouri with a Master of Science Degree in Nursing. In addition, she has earned a Diploma in Nurse Anesthesia from the Minneapolis VA School of Nursing in Minnesota, and a PhD in Public Policy and Administration (Health Services) from Walden University in Minneapolis, Minnesota.