Emergency flight nurses chart new career paths via DNP program The University of Tulsa
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Emergency flight nurses chart new career paths via DNP program

man and woman wearing white medical coats
AG-ACNP students Andy and Misty Cannon

Andy and Misty Cannon are enjoying rewarding, fast-paced careers as emergency flight nurses with Tulsa Life Flight. As if the demands of that high-pressure work and being parents to four children were not enough, Andy recently embarked on the final year of The University of Tulsa’s doctor of nursing practice (DNP) program while his wife, Misty, has just begun her first DNP semester. Both of them have chosen to pursue the adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner (AG-ACNP) pathway.

Two nurses, two journeys

Andy graduated with a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) in 2007. Since then, he has worked in emergency, interventional radiology, critical care, vascular access and, currently, flight nursing. “As flight nurses, Misty and I respond to 911 scene calls and interfacility transports,” Andy explained. “We see all ages and acuity of patients. Essentially, we’re a flying intensive care unit (ICU). We can intubate, insert chest thoracotomies, manage ventilators and pretty much any critical care infusion.”

Man and woman standing in front of a helicopter
Emergency flight nurses Andy and Misty Cannon

From age six, Misty, who grew up in rural Oklahoma, knew she wanted to be a nurse. And from age 17, she had refined that ambition to being a flight nurse. Misty became a registered nurse in 1999 and, 18 years later, she took her expertise to the skies. “I love flying,” she said. “And I love caring for critically ill and injured patients, including the autonomy of working in that setting.”

The decision to enroll in the DNP program was initially sparked for Andy by the “top-notch” education and training Tulsa Life Flight provides its nurses as well as by the experience of studying for the Certified Flight Registered Nurses (CFRN) exam: “I discovered I wanted to learn more and increase my knowledge base.”

Having decided to return to school, Andy remarked, “I didn’t want any future regrets like ‘I wish I had taken another path.’ I knew I wanted to go all the way.” In that light, the DNP made the most sense to him and, he thought, it could possibly open a door to educating future nurse practitioners someday. “In addition, I am committed to helping drive excellent health care delivery and policy. Holding a DNP will help me achieve those goals.”

With a number of DNP programs from which to choose, Andy did his research and landed on TU as his best option. He cites the TU School of Nursing’s reputation for excellence, the ability to study locally and the fact the program arranges for preceptors. “I watched students from online programs anxiously searching around for preceptors and I definitely didn’t want that additional stressor,” Andy noted.

Misty, who graduated with an associate’s degree in nursing in 2003, had a rather different journey to the DNP program than her husband. “When I started work as a flight nurse in Feb. 2018, I knew it was going to be a challenge,” she recalled. “But I had no idea how much autonomy would be present. I love it!”

A few years ago, however, Misty realized she would not be able to work at the bedside “for hours on end every day.” In addition, she foresaw that, in the not-too-distant future, a BSN would be required for critical care nursing. “I therefore decided I would complete my bachelor’s and be done forever with higher education.”

Those were her plans, but reality took a somewhat different route.

Woman and man wearing blue hospital scrubs while administering nursing care to a mannequin patient in a hospital bed
The Cannons in TU’s Nursing Skills Lab

In mid-2020, about five weeks before she completed the BSN program at Grand Canyon University, Misty contracted COVID-19. And not a mild case, either. Misty was out of commission for two whole months. “I managed to finish the degree but, as I returned to work, I quickly perceived I wouldn’t be able to continue to do my job as a flight nurse forever. I knew I would come to a point where I just couldn’t physically tolerate the demands.”

Enter husband Andy, whose positive experiences as a DNP student helped sway Misty to pursue the AG-ACNP pathway at TU as the best way to work as a nurse practitioner in the acute care setting she loves.

“Life’s little overlapping circles sure are funny,” Misty remarked. “I talked Andy into becoming a flight nurse – he started in April 2018 – and then he talked me into becoming a DNP student. Sometimes we need a push, because growth doesn’t come from comfort.”

Another reason Misty chose to apply to the DNP program is is because she felt a doctoral degree would set her apart from master’s prepared nurses. “In addition, the extended scope of practice that will be opened for me is really exciting.”

A couple of weeks ago, Misty wrote her first exam in the DNP program. “It was nerve wracking, but I held it together and I’m so glad I made this decision!”

From research to best practice

Nearer to the finish line, Andy is pulling together plans for his DNP project, a capstone research study. The focus of this is on developing a protocol for using a bougie – a tapered, cylindrical instrument — on every intubation attempt. Andy’s interest in this topic comes from both literature and life.

“There is a lot of data that shows multiple intubation attempts are associated with increased adverse events, such as hypoxia, damage to airway structures and cardiac arrests. Evidence indicates that the use of a bougie improves the intubation success rate,” said Andy.

As a flight nurse, he has also witnessed firsthand the difficulties even some experienced medical practitioners have when they attempt to intubate patients without a bougie. “Seeing those situations made me wonder, ‘why isn’t a bougie the standard of care?’”

As he looks to the future, Andy is hopeful that his DNP research will help pave the way for exactly that change in practice. “As a flight nurse, Andy has intubated many patients and has found that using a specific technique with a bougie during intubation decreases the number of multiple attempts and improves patient safety,” commented AG-ACNP Director Andrea Wall. “Outcomes for his project will hopefully prove that changing the intubation technique can increase success rates.”

The future of health care depends on strong leadership from excellent clinicians. Find out more about scaling that height with one of the four pathways available via TU’s doctor of nursing practice program.