Taking Pains to Make a Difference: USU Faculty Among First Nurse Anesthetist Fellowship Inductees

Navy Cmdr. Jerrol Wallace (left) and Dr. Matthew D'Angelo (right) prepare for a teaching exercise in the anesthesia simulation lab.

By Ian Neligh

The word anesthesia comes from the Greek anaisthetos, essentially meaning “without sensation.” But for those working as nurse anesthetists, that certainly doesn’t mean without feeling.

Uniformed Services University’s Nurse Anesthesia Program Director Navy Commander Jerrol Wallace, DNP, and Associate Professor Matthew D’Angelo, DNP, are among the first nurse anesthetists in the country to be inducted into the inaugural class of Fellows of the American Academy of Nurse Anesthetists later this fall.

The organization recognizes nurse anesthetists who are leaders in their profession and have made major impacts in the areas of research, education, and clinical practice.

For both USU Graduate School of Nursing faculty members, working as nurse anesthetists and as teachers helping to save lives and empowering others to do the same thing is something they’re deeply passionate about.

The moments in their lives that defined their choices to become nurses and anesthetists are different, but both were inspired by other nurses who had come before. And for both men, the inspiration that kicked off their accomplished careers in nursing began with a simple act of kindness.


It’s about three minutes. 

That’s about all the time anesthetists have to build a rapport with their patients and to give them the confidence to trust their lives to a stranger, Wallace said.

“What I tell the students is, ‘this patient is having major surgery and they have to rely on a stranger -- that they just met -- to keep them alive,” Wallace said. “So you have about three minutes to make a good impression on them to ensure that they are safe. They are entrusting their lives into your hands, so you have to have a great bedside manner; you have to be able to reassure them.”

It was that type of assurance and empathy that originally inspired Wallace to become a nurse anesthetist. Wallace attended college in the early ‘90s and worked as an EMT in New York City, but knew he needed a change. He admitted he wasn’t feeling fully committed to college, so ultimately joined the Navy as a hospital corpsman. A few years later, he and his wife needed to bring their daughter to the hospital for surgery.

“We were a little nervous, she was like a year old, and this woman came up to us and said she was a nurse anesthetist and she would be doing our daughter’s anesthesia,” Wallace said. “She took her; she had this big smile on her face and said my daughter was comfortable, which made my wife and I very comfortable and I was like ‘you know what? When I grow up, that is what I’m going to do.’”

A group of people standing in a brick courtyard in front of a tree.
Uniformed Services University's Graduate School of Nursing's Program Director Navy Commander Jerrol Wallace, DNP (pictured center), with a recent
class of nursing students. Wallace is among the first nurse anesthetists in the country to be inducted into the inaugural Fellows in the American Academy
of Nurse Anesthetists. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Jerrol Wallace)

Wallace then spent the next four years going back to school, getting prerequisites for nursing school, and then took part in the Medical Enlisted Commissioning Program with the Navy. He would also go on to get his Master’s of Science in Nursing at USU and Doctor of Nursing Practice at Duke University. His career has taken him all over the world. It even saw him in 2011 deployed on the U.S.S. George Washington during the Fukushima plant disaster as the sole anesthesia provider. 

When he first got into the field, he said there was not a lot of diversity among those serving as nurse anesthetists.

“When I graduated from nurse anesthesia school, there were four black CRNAs in the Navy,” Wallace said. “In my class, there were two of us who were successful, but over the years there have been significantly more applicants and more who have been successful in the program.”

Wallace said to see the diversity continue to grow over the years from just four students of color in a class to sometimes between 20 to 30 tells him his influence is helping.

“When people see individuals that look like them being successful, it motivates them to do the right thing to become successful themselves,” Wallace said. 

Wallace added there is something to be said about influencing the individuals who are one day going to replace him that he finds motivational. 

“And that look of satisfaction or excitement when that student gets their first intubation, it’s that first arterial line placement or when you see that lightbulb go on because they’ve just grasped a concept - that’s powerful,” Wallace said. “I think I have a great rapport with the students and because I was fortunate to get an opportunity to do anesthesia, I feel I have an obligation to continue to influence those who come behind me.”

Wallace adds that over the years he has never forgotten that day when his daughter was in the hospital for surgery and how comfortable the anesthetist made him and his wife feel. That act of empathy changed the way he looked at nursing.

“I never forgot that. And it is important for me to enforce that to all the students that I encounter, all the patients that I encounter, and to ensure that they get the same type of feeling,” Wallace said. “I say you can’t get into this profession for the money or the prestige, you have to truly care about your patients and you have to be an advocate for them.”

A Challenge

“There was a case I did a couple of years ago and it still to this day amazes me,” D’Angelo said when thinking back about what inspires him as a nurse anesthetist. “There was a woman who was hemorrhaging, she was bleeding to death nearing the term of her pregnancy. And putting her to sleep could have killed her — and actually, it almost did.”

Matt D'Angelo wearing sunglasses, in a kneeling pose.
Uniformed Services University's
Graduate School of Nursing's program
Associate Professor Matt D'Angelo,
DNP, on a recent deployment overseas.
D'Angelo will be inducted into the
newly-formed inaugural Fellows in the
American Academy of Nurse
Anesthetists later this fall. (Photo
Credit: Courtesy of Matt D'Angelo)
As they put the woman to sleep, she became hypotensive and her blood pressure became so low she went into cardiac arrest. The team performed a c-section at that moment to save the baby. Work then began to resuscitate the mother, and it worked. 

“Now obviously that wasn’t all me, this was a team by a long stretch, but the fact that I was the last one sitting in the room with her and I took the breathing tube out and was sitting with her, talking to her and squeezing her hand,” D’Angelo said. “And she was dead by all accounts just a few hours earlier — it was pretty amazing.”

D’Angelo’s career has taken him from the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore — the busiest trauma center in the nation — to a recent trip to Somalia where he served as the sole anesthetist with an Army austere surgical team; Expeditionary Resuscitation Surgical Team (ERST)-5 assigned to Special Operations Task Force East Africa. He is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom and is currently an Army reservist and chief nurse with the U.S. Army Medical Command. 

For D’Angelo, his journey to becoming a nurse anesthetist started with a hurt ankle nearly 30 years ago. At the time he was an Army infantryman and had hobbled up to an aid station looking for help. There, a male nurse, who had been an Army Ranger tended to his injury.

“It was a different time,” said D’Angelo. “When I graduated high school men didn’t go into nursing. Very few did. It never occurred to me as a possibility for a job when I was in high school. It opened my eyes to a field I never would have considered doing.”

At about the same time his mother was struggling with some health issues and he wanted to understand what she was going through, so he started taking science-related courses.

“My mom battles multiple sclerosis and at the time she was struggling with a lot and she’d come home and talk about what the doctors were saying to her and I just did not understand what they were explaining to her,” said D’Angelo. “So I stumbled onto taking classes and enjoyed it. I went to nursing school after I got off of active duty and became a critical care nurse.”

D’Angelo said he first went into the Army’s infantry because he saw it as a challenge.

“I joined the infantry because no one thought I could do it. So I did it and I did fairly well,” said D’Angelo. “And when I was a critical care nurse at the bedside someone said, ‘you should try this anesthesia thing, you would like it, it is pretty challenging.’ I said, ‘oh, well, I’m going to do it.’”

He said a lot of what has motivated him in the profession over the years is a personal desire to work the hardest he can and challenge himself.

“I have the greatest job in the world because I get to teach people, I get to mentor them and I still get to practice,” D’Angelo said. “It’s a pretty amazing feeling when you're kind of squeezing someone’s hand and saying ‘hey, I got you on this. You’re going to be fine.’ 


Wallace said when it came to being among the first nurse anesthetists to be inducted into the inaugural class of Fellows of the American Academy of Nurse Anesthetists he was thrilled those working in his field were finally getting noticed. 

“For us to have our own (organization), I think the timing was perfect, and I thought it was a great opportunity,” Wallace said. “I was very excited to be one of the first because I think I’ve done a great job influencing the field of nurse anesthesia.”

For his part, D’Angelo said he thought being among the first inductees -- one of only 50 selected from more than 57,000 AANA members -- was an honor. He added once he reflected back on all the students he had taught over the years he realized what a huge distinction the inclusion was.

“I feel like I’ve had an impact on many more patients because of the ripple effect of what I’ve passed on … and the lessons I hope I’ve taught them. That’s what made it feel special to me.”