When Dr. Tommy Diller tells people he’s a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist, he’s prepared for blank stares.
“I wouldn’t describe it as the best-kept secret in health; I would describe it as an unfortunate secret that a lot of the general public doesn’t know who we are, what we are and what we do,” said Diller, who recently joined the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga School of Nursing faculty as a full-time assistant professor.
Diller graduated in 2006 from the UTC School of Nursing with a master’s degree in nurse anesthesia.
“I say that ‘We never miss a beat,’ which means we’re watching your heart rhythm, your heartbeat, your breathing, your blood pressure, your oxygen, all those things that keep you alive while you’re asleep.”
To call attention to CRNAs’ ongoing service nationwide, the week of Jan. 22-28 is designated as National CRNA Week. Begun in 2000 by the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists, the week highlights the importance of CRNAs in the medical field.
According to the association, which was established in 1863, there are an estimated 59,000 CRNAs in the U.S.
The nurse anesthesia program at UTC has contributed to those numbers, educating nurse anesthetists in Chattanooga for over 50 years.
“During the past 50 years, over 800 Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists have completed the program,” said Dr. Linda Hill, professor in the School of Nursing and coordinator of its nurse anesthesia concentration.
“Each year, UTC nurse anesthesia students consistently provide nearly 48,000 supervised patient-care hours and administer anesthesia under clinical supervision to about 24,000 surgical and obstetrical patients.”
Diller, a member of the North American Partners of Anesthesia, also works in CHI Memorial and Parkridge hospitals in Chattanooga. It’s almost never a 9-to-5 job, he said; anesthetists are on call 24/7.
“Some days I go early to cover cases. Sometimes I come in later. Sometimes I work all night,” he said with a laugh.
Diller, who teaches a new class in bioethics at UTC, has previously been a guest lecturer in the School of Nursing, discussing cardiovascular anesthesia, physiology and pharmacology with students.
“There are a lot of ethical issues that health care providers and the general public deal with every day,” he said. “One of the biggest things is informed consent, where you can list the risks and the benefits and the alternatives for what we’re doing today; what their anesthetic is going to be so they can make the best decision for themselves and what they want.”
Along with his teaching duties, he’ll work one day a week as a CRNA in a local hospital.
Becoming a CRNA is not a quick sprint through classes and test-taking. A person first must earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, a four-year process. After that, it’s at least two years of practice in a medical center Intensive Care Unit. Finally, a doctoral degree in nurse anesthesia is required, which takes another three years.
Diller did his ICU work in a Maryland hospital’s coronary care unit, a Chicago hospital’s surgical intensive care that did organ transplants, then back to the cardiovascular ICU at CHI Memorial Hospital in Chattanooga.
With all that under his belt, he returned to the UTC School of Nursing Master of Nurse Anesthesia program, where he graduated with honors in 2006 and began full-time practice as a nurse anesthetist. He earned his Ph.D. in nursing in August 2022 from East Tennessee State University.
Diller said his time as a nursing student at UTC helped him develop the critical ability to quickly create a sense of trust with a patient “to put them at ease. So they have confidence in me, and they have confidence that everything’s going to be OK.
“I can go to class; I can learn the science of it, learn the chemistry, learn the pharmacology and anatomy and physiology. But how does that translate into being a professional and delivering that care in a way that patients are not nervous?
“If you think about it, if you’re in the hospital, you’re probably having a bad day. It’s not a good day when you have to be in the hospital.”