Ikey DeVasher: Faith-Motivated Educator and Advocate

Ikey DeVasher and mentor Bernard Bowen, founder and first program director of MTSA, in 1985.
Ikey with some of her former students/now CRNAs who returned for her 2012 retirement celebration at MTSA.

From finding her calling as a nurse anesthetist more than 50 years ago, to guiding a lifetime of SRNAs on their own journeys to becoming CRNAs, long-time nurse anesthesia educator and TANA member Mary Elizabeth “Ikey” DeVasher credits everything she’s accomplished to one thing: her faith in God.

Recollecting her days as a student at Mountain Sanitarium Hospital School of Nursing in Fletcher, N.C., Ikey happily shared that besides meeting and marrying her husband of 60 years, two pivotal experiences helped chart her career course.

“The first was in a religion class,” she said. “The instructor read to us from a book titled ‘Education’ that ‘Higher than the highest human thought can reach is God’s ideal for His children.’ I had been a good student, but not an excellent one. As I heard that quote, I realized it applied to grades, too. That night, I told God I believed He wanted me to do better, and knowing that my mind tended to wander, I also told Him that I needed Him to clear the cobwebs from my head. From then on, before I opened a book to study, I invited God to be my guide. My grades shot up. My classmates noticed, and soon we began studying in groups, always asking God to be present with us. The class GPA shot up as well. At the end of my senior year, I was recognized in the school annual as Student Nurse of the Year. That is how I came to love teaching.”

Ikey’s second career-defining experience occurred in a cardiac pharmacology class with guest instructor Don Lowe, who was a CRNA.  “I had no idea what a CRNA was, but by the end of his two-hour lecture, I knew that whatever he was, that is what I wanted to be,” she said. “His depth of knowledge and desire to share it were so evident.”

Upon graduating with her nursing diploma, Ikey and her husband, Bernard, moved to Tennessee with a plan for her to attend the Madison Hospital School of Anesthesia (now the Middle Tennessee School of Anesthesia, or MTSA). Tennessee has been their home ever since.

Based on Ikey’s grades and state board exam score, Madison Program Director Bernard Bowen, DSc, CRNA, invited Ikey to attend the school.  She immediately fell in love with the profession. To this day, Ikey credits Bowen with being her primary mentor.

After becoming a CRNA in 1969, Ikey worked with another CRNA covering five rural hospitals; she also taught part time at her alma mater.  In 1974, William O.T. Smith, MD, the first anesthesiologist to be involved in Madison’s administration, invited Ikey to become a full-time faculty member, thanks in large part to recommendations from various faculty, especially Nelda Faye Ackerman, CRNA, another of Ikey’s early mentors.

In 1982, shortly after Bowen’s retirement, Ikey was assigned the role of director of the Madison program.

“In order to be a program director, I knew the time would come when I needed to hold a master’s degree, so I enrolled in Tennessee State University,” Ikey explained. It was there that she began to entertain the idea of moving the anesthesia educational program at Madison from a certificate to master’s level program. “During this process,” Ikey explained, “I felt that God was not answering some of my most ardent prayers, but in retrospect I realized He was always leading me. He convinced me that Madison needed to be both professionally and regionally accredited in such a way that the school could set days and times for class attendance that were in harmony with the core beliefs of its founders: Madison College, Madison Hospital, and Bernard Bowen.” Ikey explained that while Madison (now MTSA) operates in harmony with the beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, it has not sought educational accreditation through the Seventh-day Adventist Education system which, she said, “seems to have evolved after the founding of the Madison program.”

As a Seventh-day Adventist herself, educated and working in what had always been Seventh-day Adventist educational institutions where the Sabbath (Saturday) was sacred, Ikey said she was inspired by the advice of a non-medical mentor, C. William McKee, EdD, MEd, BS, current Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of Education and Public Service Management at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee. McKee encouraged Ikey to examine making Madison a regionally accredited, anesthesia-specific school. “This advice proved to be golden,” Ikey said. “The efforts were long and arduous, but they turned out to be wildly successful.”

Madison achieved regional accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS/COC) to go along with being professionally accredited by the national Council on Accreditation (COA) of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs.  Ikey developed the logo for the school, which featured the first anesthetist—the Creator—as memorialized in the words of Genesis 2:21: “…and the LORD God caused a deep sleep to come upon Adam, and he slept…”

In addition, she said, MTSA’s motto became, “Reflecting Christ in Anesthesia Education.” MTSA was the first and remains the only single-purpose, anesthesia-specific, regionally and professionally accredited graduate-degree (Doctor of Nurse Anesthesia Practice) school of anesthesia in the United States. Today MTSA also affords CRNAs the opportunity to enroll in specialized anesthesia programs such as acute pain management.

Later in her career, Ikey’s mentors were often her students. “I learned so much from them,” she said. “For example, from the likes of Patty Cornwell, Vic Martin, Charles Dinwiddie, Mike Morel, and Dina Velocci I learned the importance of advocating for our profession.” She became passionate about sharing her well-researched views with legislators through letter-writing, and over the years was a frequent attendee at TANA and AANA meetings. During the AA threat which TANA fended off earlier this year, Ikey used email to let her opinion be known that “the best foundation for an education in anesthesia and providing anesthesia is past experience as a nurse caring for sick patients.”

“During my career, I realized that since our program is located in the city where our state legislators meet (Nashville), it would be an excellent opportunity for future CRNAs to witness advocacy in action,” Ikey recalled. “I made attendance at TANA Day on the Hill part of a course requirement, approved by the MTSA Curriculum Committee. Further, once students successfully finished the first semester, each student received a white lab coat with the school’s name and emblem on it. The students were required to wear their coats to TANA Day on the Hill. Seeing those rows of students in white coats sitting in the arena with anesthesia bills under discussion and votes being cast was truly impactful!”

Now retired, Ikey’s career has had numerous highlights, including when Madison/MTSA first received regional accreditation, and later when the Alumni Committee and Board of Trustees of the school renamed the building where her office as Dean Emerita was located the M.E. “Ikey” DeVasher Student Support Center. “I was indeed humbled by this honor,” she said.

“Another highlight of my career was when I came to understand that in order to lead a CRNA educational program, a program administrator needs to have a degree equal to or higher than the degree offered,” Ikey recalled. “Since the profession was moving to the doctoral level, I went back to school (again) and earned my Ph.D.” She added with a smile that “I was old by this time, and figured they would write on my tombstone, ‘She never finished school, she just kept going…’”

Asked what advice Ikey would give new anesthesia students, she said, “I would tell them that every day in their clinical assignments is a job interview. Do your best every day. And I would tell a new enrollee that the competition for enrolling is past, you have arrived; now be a team player, not a competitor. Be willing to help your classmates.”

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