Surviving — and Thriving — During the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has created obstacles for all professions, but none have faced challenges greater than healthcare workers. Frontline providers such as CRNAs have had to cope with waves of critically ill patients, extra-long hours, working in full PPE, packed ICUs, worrying about catching the deadly disease and bringing it home to loved ones, and then some.

But for new CRNA Benjamin Leichliter of Kingsport, Tennessee, life’s obstacles beyond the dramatically altered work landscape tipped his stress scale even further in 2021. Faced with enormous challenges such brain surgery, graduating from his nurse anesthesia educational program, studying for and passing the National Certification Exam, planning a wedding, and starting a new job, Ben tackled them all by drawing on past experiences and leaning on lessons taught to him by two loved ones who greatly influenced his career path.

“My grandmother and mother are nurses,” he said. “Their learned ability to calm otherwise stressful situations made a huge imprint on me in my younger years.”

Ben knew from a young age he would follow in their footsteps and become a third-generation nurse. After spending time working in a cardiovascular ICU, he jumped at the offer to shadow a CRNA. Soon after he decided a career as a CRNA was for him and enrolled in the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Nurse Anesthesia Program.

But studying anesthesia wouldn’t be the only challenge he faced in school.

“In January 2021, after noticing some concerning symptoms, I had some testing done that revealed a need for brain surgery,” Ben said. “My condition wasn’t life threatening, but, without surgery, it could have progressed to where I would lose the ability to practice as a nurse anesthetist. Here I am in nurse anesthesia school, facing a diagnosis that could render me unable to perform the tasks of a CRNA.”

He credits his program’s amazing faculty with helping him align his schedule so he could fulfill his coursework and use every day of his four-week vacation to recover from surgery.

“I had to be careful not to stress myself during my recovery, but I would be lying if I told you I stopped studying,” he admitted with a determined smile. “Becoming a CRNA was a dream, and I was not letting anything get in the way of that dream. I knew I needed surgery, and I knew I needed to graduate and pass boards. I never got hung up on one or the other — they were both going to happen, and that was that.”

Through it all, Ben credits his then fiancee and now wife, Breanna.

“Breanna supported me through school, cared for me during recovery and loved me every second of every day,” he said. The two embraced another challenge together — planning a wedding during the pandemic. Ultimately, they decided to have a small ceremony in Hilton Head, SC, on Aug. 21. Ben calls it the happiest day of his life.

A few days later, Ben and Breanna adopted two golden retriever puppies, Audo and Chattin, before he started his new job in September. For some, this would have been like the proverbial cherry on top of the stress sundae, but Ben says the brother and sister retrievers have actually been “super helpful for managing stress.”

So at a time when everyday tasks such as going to the store to buy groceries have become unexpectedly challenging, what mindset did Ben adopt to not only survive, but thrive, during such a difficult year?

“Being a CRNA teaches you stress management and how to overcome stressful times,” he said. “I learned from my prior stressors a lot; I thought, ‘I’ve made it through that past situation, I can make it through this one.’

“Prioritize, itemize and carry on…take things day by day and do what it takes to chip away at challenges. Celebrate what you have accomplished at the end of the day. The next day, wake up and repeat. Don’t forget to keep happiness and joy present,” Ben said.

In addition to Breanna, he also credits his faith, and he hopes his story might help others through difficult situations during the seemingly never-ending pandemic.

“Mindset and determination kept me happy and focused during the pandemic,” Ben said. “For me now, stress exists but does not carry the pressure that makes it mentally debilitating. It is nothing more than a reminder to prioritize and overcome.”

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