Jeff Blackhurst’s career as a nurse anesthetist at UPMC has spanned 25 years, but he still remembers the woman who was rushed into the emergency room on Christmas Eve 2000.
The woman, in her late 30s, had suffered a torn thoracic aneurysm, and doctors told her she had less than a 5 percent chance of survival. She was accompanied by her husband and their 4-year-old twin daughters, dressed in taffeta holiday dresses, and before she went into surgery, the woman wanted to say a final goodbye.
“It was heart-wrenching,” said Blackhurst. “I’ve never forgotten those little girls in their dresses.”
The woman survived the surgery, but when Blackhurst went to check on her on Christmas Day, she was having seizures and “every imaginable problem she could have,” he recalled.
He returned the following day, and the day after that as her condition worsened, and when he saw her empty bed space on the fourth day, he assumed she had died.
“I asked the charge nurse if she had died, and he called me over. So I walked over to the (cardiothoracic) ICU, and just as we came through the doorway I noticed her pushing an IV pole with her daughters beside her,” said Blackhurst. “I call her my Christmas miracle.”
Blackhurst, of North Strabane Township, recently won a Cameos of Caring award, which recognizes nurses and health-care providers who provide exceptional care in health-care institutions throughout Western Pennsylvania.
Also earning the award were Lisa Ketter, a staff nurse at Canonsburg Hospital, and Anthony Cintron, nursing supervisor at Monongahela Valley Hospital.
“It was a big honor,” said Blackhurst. “I love my job. I love going to work every day.
“The job itself is a cross between boredom and panic,” said Blackhurst, who works the 15-hour night shift. “One second you can be completely asleep, and the next second you’re involved in a life-threatening emergency. Every patient is kind of like a puzzle, and your job is to figure it out. You have to make critical decisions instantly, and the impact of your critical decisions can be life-threatening if you don’t make it correctly.”
Cintron has worked for more than 30 years at Mon Valley Hospital. Nicknamed “The Whistler,” the upbeat Cintron entered nursing when he became a medical specialist in the National Guard. In his wallet, he carries a cardboard coin used during the Great Depression, given to him by a stroke patient, as a daily reminder of the impact he has on patients.
Ketter entered nursing after a 17-year career in airline customer service ended when her position was outsourced. She always admired nurses and decided to pursue a nursing career, earning an associate’s degree in nursing from Community College of Beaver County. She works in the orthopedic unit.
Ketter still remembers her first patient in nursing school, a diabetic who had his leg amputated.
“He inspired me with his positive attitude and taught me to never think of a patient as a chore but to always treat patients with love, compassion and respect,” Ketter wrote in her biography.
She serves on Canonsburg’s Nurse Practice Council and volunteers with the Washington City Mission, along with her two daughters.
Blackhurst entered the University of Pittsburgh as an undeclared general studies major, and while his was looking for a job to help pay for college, some students told him about an EMT paramedic program.
During the program, Blackhurst met and shadowed paramedics, including a nurse anesthetist/EMT who was an underwater rescue diver.
“I thought it was pretty cool, and I decided I’d better go to nursing school,” he said.
Early on, Blackhurst worked in the ICU unit of a West Virginia hospital and served as a flight paramedic for Stat Medevac, taking critically ill patients all over the country for medical treatment. In one weekend, he recalled, he flew from Pittsburgh to Bar Harbor, Maine, to Bangor, to New York City, to Newark, N.J., to Lexington, Ky., to New Orleans, to San Diego, to Tijuana, Mexico (a patient underwent a non-traditional cancer treatment), and then back.
Blackhurst is a teacher and a mentor who orients new staff, and would like to pursue education in the future. He has been involved in many departmental projects, including improving automated pharmaceutical dispensing and streamlining operating room protocols. He also has advocated for having a pharmacist in operating rooms around the clock.
“I enjoy teaching, and what I’m doing now is a young person’s game. I’ve been working since I was 14 years old, and I like working hard, but it’s time for me to concentrate on the next chapter, which is teaching,” said Blackhurst.
When he’s not working, Blackhurst enjoys “playing farmer” on his farm, which features horse stables and a large garden that he cares for with his wife, Susan, and their two children, Jonathan and Hilary. Blackhurst is also president of the board of trustees at Chartiers Hill United Presbyterian Church.