Under Pressure: Providing critical care when it matters most

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Shane Hughes
  • 180th Fighter Wing

“He would kind of question himself like, ‘Should I really be letting her watch this?’ But he said I would watch it for hours and tell him ‘That’s the gall bladder,’ and I was just a little kid,” Newkirk said.

Her early exposure to trauma care led her to a career in the medical field, and ultimately to saving lives.

The first person in her family to attend college, Newkirk faced a common hurdle: she knew she needed an education, but she didn’t know how to pay for it. 

“At the time, it didn’t really seem possible, because no one else in my family had done it,” Newkirk said.

She needed someone who had already accomplished what she hoped to accomplish. She needed a mentor to help show her the way. She found that mentor through one of her friends, whose mom worked at the 180th Fighter Wing. Her friend’s mom explained the college tuition benefits Newkirk would receive if she joined the Air National Guard, and she enlisted a few months later as a lab technician with the wing’s medical group.

After returning home from basic training, Newkirk enrolled in the nursing program at the University of Toledo. She graduated in 2012 and began working as a nurse in the surgical intensive care unit at ProMedica Toledo Hospital. After a few years, she received her critical care certification and moved to New York City with her husband, where she worked at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. 

Despite living and working more than 500 miles away from the 180FW, she refused to transfer units. She said she felt such a strong sense of comradery and connection to her fellow Airmen at the 180FW that she decided she would fly back to Ohio every month for training rather than switch to the New York or New Jersey Air National Guard. Most of the time, the money she earned from a weekend of training went directly to paying for her plane tickets. For three years, she served in the Ohio National Guard, not for the money, but for the love of it.

In 2017, she enrolled in the Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist program at Otterbein University. It was during this time that she would find herself in high-stress situations of life-or-death importance. 

While providing anesthesia, her patient experienced a serious and extremely rare medical event. An event that results in the patient’s death in more than 80% of cases. She recognized the problem immediately and took action to save the patient. Newkirk refrained from explaining the details of the case to protect patient confidentiality. 

“She was working at a facility where the CRNAs are the only people in charge and there are no doctors, so she was literally the person making all the decisions,” said Jessica DeSalvo, a nurse anesthetist who studied with Newkirk at Otterbein. “She had a day where she had a patient coding on the table and she took charge of the situation, and they were able to stabilize the patient.”

“She’s calm and focused,” said Dr. Norman Smike, medical director of the Grant-Otterbein CRNA program. “She doesn’t let emotions get in the way, she just does what needs to be done. She’s great at communicating under pressure, and during a critical situation, Kaitlyn did a fantastic job.”

“Anesthesia is 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror,” Newkirk said. “The most fatal thing that can happen in anesthesia is not recognizing that something is happening. Prompt recognition of an adverse event is the best way to save a patient’s life. The quick recognition and communication between the anesthesia providers and the surgeon, and the quick action taken thereafter is what saved the patient’s life.”

Newkirk said her experience in Air Force basic training is what allowed her to remain calm and focused during that situation. It gave her the tools she needed to handle the stress.

“I still, to this day, think a lot about basic training in terms of how I manage stress,” Newkirk said. “They’re creating a high-stress environment on purpose to test your ability to complete your mission. That high-stress environment, that truly is anesthesia. A patient is dying; fix it, fix it, fix it! That’s the thought in your head the entire time. It’s like a training instructor is yelling inside my ear the entire time; fix it, fix it, fix it! Even though it’s been more than 12 years, I still think about how I first learned to maintain my composure in those situations.”

“Her military experiences have helped mold her and prepare her to tolerate stressful situations, to think clearly, to stay calm under pressure, and given her opportunities to experience things most people don’t get a chance to experience,” DeSalvo said.

She brings that experience with her to the 180FW. As a clinical nurse, she draws blood, gives shots, and teaches self-aid and buddy care to all 180FW Airmen to ensure they have the skills to provide life-saving first aid during the often chaotic and high-stress situations they might face in deployed environments.

In addition to training Airmen, she actively mentors them, helping them to overcome obstacles in their personal and professional lives. She recently helped guide an Airman through the process of becoming a CRNA.

“I never had anyone to show me the way,” Newkirk said. “Anytime I can offer that to anyone else, I will.”

She’s left a lasting impact on those she’s mentored and her colleagues. 

“I’ve never met anybody like her,” DeSalvo said. ““She’s one of the most genuine and hardworking people I’ve ever met. She’s true to herself and others.”

“Since joining the 180th Medical Group, she has consistently sought out the path that educates and challenges her the most,” said Lt. Col. Ronald Nabors, medical administrative officer at the 180FW. “Each step of her career she has consistently been identified as one of our gifted and strongest leaders. We are extremely fortunately to have her.”

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