Excellence in Nursing: Meet Our 2017 Honorees
Pittsburgh Magazine highlights the unsung heroes of the health care field: our Excellence in Nursing honorees, chosen by our panel of distinguished nursing professionals.
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photo by paul phrampus
The director of the Nurse Anesthesia Program at the University of Pittsburgh has plenty of reasons to be proud: the program consistently ranks as one of the top 10 in the country, it has 100 percent job placement for graduates and there’s access to cutting-edge technology.
But for John O’Donnell, the most fulfilling moments come when one of his students has an “aha moment.”
“I think the most fun I have is seeing people put together complicated or abstract things and actually understanding how they might apply,” says O’Donnell, 56, of Emsworth. “I get to see that every single day. To me, that is super exciting.”
A retired United States Army Nurse Corps Officer, O’Donnell has practiced at UPMC Presbyterian-Montefiore Hospital and Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC. He earned his nursing degree at then-Carlow College, was a member of the first class of Pitt’s nurse anesthesia program and received his Doctorate of Public Health in 2009.
O’Donnell, husband of Melinda and father of three children, who all attended or currently attend Pitt, has served in his role as program director since 1995.
Since 1998, Pitt’s master’s program in nurse anesthesia has been ranked in the top 10 schools in the country by U.S. News & World Report; in 2016, it took the top honor; today, it’s at No. 4. O’Donnell attributes much of the attention to the visibility of faculty in the field; “tremendous support” within the university’s School of Nursing; and availability of educational resources, particularly Pitt’s Peter M. Winter Institute for Simulation, Education and Research (WISER), a world-class multidisciplinary training and research facility.
“We are really fortunate to be at the heart of a new educational method that is sweeping the world and which is now recognized as necessary for training of healthcare professionals, especially those who do procedures and highly technical skills,” he says.
Simulation technology is at the heart of O’Donnell’s scholarly work. He also serves as WISER’s associate director, speaks around the world on simulation methodology and is co-author of the iSIM (Improving Simulation Instructional Methods) course offered around the world.
“Every single one of my students does around 900 anesthetics and 2,700 hours of work in the clinical setting before they leave,” he says. “I can’t guarantee every student is going to see an allergic reaction or a massive trauma. The only way we can make sure every student is ready for those experiences is to give them a similar experience in a safe environment where no patient is at risk.”
O’Donnell is advancing the field of simulation technology as a consultant for LUMIS CORP., a team developing an augmented reality simulation system called Body Explorer.
O’Donnell likens it to a Nintendo Wii, where the user works on a manipulatable image projected onto a body to take a pulse, ventilate or perform a variety of other procedures.
“You can peel back layers of the anatomy, and when you got down into the chest, the heart is actually beating and moving just like it would in a real person,” O’Donnell says.
“When you inject medicine into the IV, you can see the heart change related to how the medicine was administered. You can put in a breathing tube and see the breath sounds change.”
Jacqueline Dunbar-Jacob, dean of Pitt’s School of Nursing and one of Pittsburgh Magazine’s Excellence in Nursing panel members, says O’Donnell is widely recognized as someone helping drive advances in his field.
“John is a very passionate, dedicated and enthusiastic educator,” she says. “We are very proud of him, the program and faculty he leads.”